This week's Dust-up has treated the Secure Fence Act, immigration economics, amnesty and workplace immigration raids. In today's final installment, Jacoby and Krikorian consider the politics of immigration.

Giving the people what they don't want


Tamar,

Since we favor different outcomes in Congress, our prognostication should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but here's my take.

President Bush's "comprehensive" amnesty-guestworker extravaganza, that Sen. Kennedy may introduce as early as next week, is not going to become law this year. It may well be approved in some form by the Senate, though even that is not a sure thing.

But it will stumble again in the House of Representatives, just as it did last year, and for the same reason—the public hates it.

The Center for Immigration Studies' polls—and, frankly, common sense—show that the public overwhelmingly supports consistent enforcement to reduce the illegal population through self-deportation, rather than the Bush-McCain-Kennedy approach of letting the illegals stay and further increasing immigration. Unlike most polls, which presented respondents with the false choice of either massive forced deportation or legalization (and presented legalization in the most glowing terms), our polls (see here and here) offered all three choices: mass deportation (which is not on anyone's policy agenda, if for no other reason than we couldn't do it if we wanted to), the Senate approach of legalization and increased legal immigration, or the House approach of attrition through enforcement. The public supported attrition through enforcement two to one. And, lest you think the poll was designed to elicit that response, our questions never once used the accurate, but potentially provocative, terms "amnesty" or "illegal aliens."

And anyway, if the "comprehensive" approach—legalization, increased legal immigration, and promises of future enforcement—were so popular, how come no one ran on it in last November's congressional elections? Even those lawmakers who support an amnesty said little to nothing about it, focusing instead on their support for tougher border security. No evidence could demonstrate more clearly that the "comprehensive" approach is an elite-driven policy, which ordinary voters—Republican and Democrat—dislike.

Heck, even the Senate Republican sponsors of the bill are wary of the people's wrath. The word on Capitol Hill is that McCain has pulled his name off the new version of the bill (though he still supports it), while Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback said yesterday that he could not support the bill, even though he was an original co-sponsor of it last year!

But even if the amnesty bill is somehow approved by the full Senate, the House will be the stumbling block. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said that she understands her majority to be on probation—her sole job over the next two years is to ensure the re-election of a Democratic House in 2008. But if an amnesty is approved this year, every Republican candidate in 2008 will be able to run against the NANCY-PELOSI-LEFTWING-SAN-FRANCISCO-DEMOCRAT amnesty—even some of the new moderate Democrats who ran on pro-enforcement platforms will have to do that to get re-elected.

And they will get even more traction than polls might suggest, because it will be right around election season 2008 that all the stories will start hitting the newspapers and TV about the (initial) catastrophic results of the amnesty: bureaucratic meltdown (the immigration agency can't even handle its current workload); massive fraud; and the legalization of criminals, terrorists, and just ordinary liars—not to mention the surge of new illegal immigration across the border that will be sparked by news of the amnesty.

It is for this reason that Democratic amnesty supporters in the House are insisting that they will not proceed without lots of Republican support to provide political cover (the president's signature on the bill wouldn't provide much political cover, since he has little credibility left even with Republican voters, especially those most concerned about immigration). One Democratic amnesty supporter has said his party needs 50 to 60 Republican votes to provide cover, while Rep. Rahm Emanuel, architect of the Democratic victory in the House, is insisting they will not proceed unless they're assured of 85 to 90 Republican votes.

When you consider that only 17 Republicans voted against last year's attrition-through-enforcement bill, it's pretty clear that the Democratic leadership is intentionally setting an unattainably high threshold of Republican support to provide an excuse when their pro-amnesty constituency groups complain about the lack of movement on the amnesty.

In order to give something tangible to those groups (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Service Employees International Union, the National Council of La Raza, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, et al.), I expect that the Democratic leadership will push smaller amnesty measures that are not as politically dangerous for them—bills such as the Dream Act (which would give amnesty to illegal aliens who'd graduated from U.S. high schools) or the AgJobs bill (an amnesty for illegal-alien farmworkers). These are still amnesties and, in my opinion, very ill-advised, but they're less likely to blow up in Nancy Pelosi's face. It wouldn't be too far off to view them as this Congress's equivalent of President Clinton's micro-initiatives like midnight basketball and school uniforms.

And if the amnesty fails to pass this year, it will become an issue in the presidential election, which is probably just as well, because this is a major issue that really needs to be the high-profile, featured issue in a national election to progress politically. In this respect, two things are possible: the Republicans may nominate an anti-amnesty candidate like Mitt Romney or, if they go with McCain or Giuliani (i.e., a candidate who has the same position as whoever the Democrats pick) there will almost certainly be a third party run, again making immigration an important part of the election debate.

Either way, this is a democracy, and if the people feel strongly enough about something for long enough, they'll get their way—despite opposition by a united front of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Media, Big Religion, and Big Academia. And what the people want from their government is simple: enforcement of the immigration law.