Late, great, immigration debate

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
By Mark Krikorian
Tamar Jacoby’s reply is below.


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.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center forImmigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls onimmigration.

Which side are you on?
By Tamar Jacoby

You say it won’t happen, Mark—you say we’ll never create a system that delivers the workers we need to keep the economy growing and restores the rule of law too. And I suppose there are always people like you—skeptics who say it can’t be done. But the good news is the people who want to solve problems don’t generally listen to you doubters. They just solve the problems: Christopher Columbus sailed in spite of the flat-earthers. And they’re the ones who make history. The flat-earthers like you end up in the footnotes.

True enough, it’s hard to imagine today—as I’m sure it was hard during Prohibition to imagine we’d ever get a grip on alcohol use. But what makes you so sure we won’t enforce new, more realistic immigration law?

No, we haven’t done a good job of enforcing the current immigration code, particularly not on our southern border. But we couldn’t. As anyone who knows anything about the issue understands, our approach to the border has been a charade for decades—law formulated to please people like you who couldn’t face the truth about how demography and geography and economics were driving immigrants into the U.S. From the beginning, the laws were unrealistic and all but unenforceable. The best analogy, better maybe even than Prohibition, is Victorian sexual morality: a code designed for appearance’s sake, but always too constraining—too unrealistic—to make much real sense in most real people’s lives. And in the case of U.S. border policy, the charade was even more pernicious. Official hypocrisy encouraged not only rampant illegality, but also the exploitation of foreign workers who, because of their unauthorized status, were virtually without rights.

Yes, this is a shameful history. But there’s nothing intrinsic about immigration or about America that says we can’t put it behind us. In fact, I’d argue, what we’re seeing across the country today is a growing clamor to do just that: to end this history of hypocrisy and start anew, treating immigration with the candor and pragmatism we as nation apply to most other issues.

You call me naive; I ask you what planet you’re living on? Do you really think the American public will soon forget its concern about border security or its outrage over the way the rule of law is increasingly flouted on the job and in their communities? Do you really think Washington—this president or Congress or a future White House—could ignore this growing clamor, even if it wanted to?

Maybe you do. You believe so many implausible things—that we can continue to grow the American economy without foreign workers, that we can convince six million of them to “self-deport.” Perhaps, if you believe that, it’s not a stretch to think that once we pass a new law, Americans will forget about border security and we won’t bother to enforce the legislation.

You certainly couldn’t be more wrong about public opinion on immigration. Poll after poll shows the American people desperately want the problem solved. They believe it can be solved. And they understand that any solution worthy of the name will have to provide an answer for the illegal immigrants already in the country. Not only that, but when asked explicitly to chose between your answer, enforcement only, and the answer backed by the president and passed by the Senate last year—a solution that combines more enforcement, both on the border and in the workplace, with more worker visas and a way for the 12 million illegal immigrants already here to come in out of the shadows—voters come down strongly for the broader package.

When the national exit poll conducted in November asked if illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for legal status, 63 percent of voters said yes, while only 29 percent said no. More specifically, in March and April, when the immigration debate was raging most intensely, more than half a dozen surveys by major mainstream polling organizations—the Gallup Poll, Washington Post/ABC News, Time, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, CNN and the Republican National Committee, among others—found that between 60 and 75 percent of the public favored allowing the illegal immigrants already here to earn their way to citizenship as long as they meet certain “conditions” or “requirements” like working and paying taxes. And in the days just before the November midterms, when the Tarrance Group (full disclosure: they were working for the Manhattan Institute and the National Immigration Forum) asked if voters preferred Candidate A, in favor of enforcement only, or Candidate B, who backed a Senate-like three-part solution, 57 percent chose Candidate B, with only 37 percent for enforcement only.

Face it, Mark, you’re in the minority, and a relatively small minority at that. I don’t believe that even a full quarter of Americans share your virulently anti-immigrant views.


So, are we likely to get a bill passed this year? I believe we have a good chance.

Sure, it’s a tall order in the run-up to a presidential election—perhaps the most contested presidential election of our era. Despite Democratic control of Congress, we’ll still need a bipartisan majority in both chambers—maybe as many as 20 Republicans in the Senate and 40 in the House. And both parties will be tempted—sorely tempted—by the lure of partisan politics. What Democrat wouldn’t like to see John McCain and Mitt Romney scratching each other’s eyes out over immigration? What Republicans can’t imagine the TV spots pillorying Democrats as the “amnesty party”? And yes, for every member trying to pass reform, there will be another fearing that a gutsy vote will cost them reelection—or worse yet, relishing the prospect that the legislative process will run off the tracks, setting up an election-year blame game.

But this doesn’t mean there is no hope—precisely because the American public, fed up with the hypocritical immigration system, is so hungry to see the problem solved.

Employers who can’t find enough workers. Latinos with friends or family living in the shadows. Ordinary soccer moms and dads increasingly angry that Washington can’t solve the problems we face—can’t in this case secure the border or end the corrosive illegality spreading from state to state. Together, these voters may just create such a furor that even the most calculating members of Congress have no choice but to come through with results.

It may sound like a long shot. It’s easy to be cynical about Washington. But sometimes even politics as usual has to give way to that other kind of politics—the politics of what voters want. And I don’t know about you, Mark, but speaking for myself, I’d rather be on the side of those, in Congress and elsewhere, stepping up to the plate to get something done.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute .

Other immigration exchanges in this week’s Dust-Up

< Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 >