“Y’all may think I’m copping out, but with my Christian faith, it’s hard for me to say that I’m gonna divide these families up,” Representative Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.) told constituents at a town-hall meeting last week.
Representative John Carter (R., Texas), a member of the so-called Gang of Seven working on a comprehensive immigration-reform proposal in the House, noted that some evangelical Christian leaders were backing the effort. “The evangelical community wants to remind people that we are dealing with human beings with families,” Carter said at a press conference in his district. “They should be treated with respect and compassion.”
Such rhetoric may be more in line with the GOP’s “rebranding” effort than are some of the harsher comments from reform opponents such as Representative Steve King (R., Iowa). However, critics of the Gang of Eight bill, which passed the Senate in June and appears dead on arrival in the House, are concerned that Republicans may be ceding valuable rhetorical ground to the Left on the issue of immigration reform, and that this could have significant consequences down the road.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published shortly after the Gang of Eight unveiled its legislation, Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) denounced the arguments of “far-left activist groups that see citizenship for illegal immigrants as a ‘civil right’ and will push to water down border security and enforcement measures that are critical to reform’s long-term success.”
This week, some immigration-rights activists have been making this very case, seeking to use the 50th-anniversary celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington as a pretext for appropriating the “moral tone” of the civil-rights icon. “At the core, we are talking about the same thing,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration policy for the National Council of La Raza. “This is a conversation about the value of a person. It was the core of the conversation then, and it is the core of the conversation now.”
As Rubio also noted, the Obama administration, which has repeatedly used executive authority to undermine existing immigration law, is one of the worst offenders. Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, has argued that creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants was “a matter of civil and human rights.”
Some conservatives argue that by discussing immigration reform in explicitly humanitarian or religious tones, Republicans risk playing into the hands of those who share this philosophy. “The Left has succeeded in getting Republicans to frame the immigration debate in fundamentally leftist terms,” says a GOP aide who opposes the Gang of Eight bill. “They’ve consistently made the argument that enforcing immigration laws is basically immoral, which is designed to undermine the lawful immigration system.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, notes there is often genuine sympathy for humanitarian arguments with respect to certain classes of illegal immigrants — for example, the so-called DREAMers: those covered by the DREAM Act, legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for younger immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. Unfortunately, he added, Democrats and immigration-activist groups are more than willing to exploit this sympathy for political gain. (Their recent tactics include sending children to town-hall meetings to urge Republicans not to “deport my daddy.”)
And even if the Gang of Eight bill passed with significant Republican support, Krikorian argues, the GOP would continue to be attacked along these lines, when Democrats attempt to renegotiate the extent of the fines, waiting periods, prohibitions on receiving federal benefits, and so on. “The Left will immediately pounce on all of its various restrictions as being cruel and inhumane,” he says. “They will continue to pull Republicans toward less and less enforcement, based on this argument of compassion.”
They might not even have to. As written, the Gang of Eight bill would give the secretary of homeland security sweeping authority to grant waivers to illegal immigrants for “humanitarian purposes,” to “ensure family unity,” or to prevent “hardship” — even for individuals who have committed fraud or have been convicted of multiple misdemeanors.
A primary concern among the bill’s critics is that it will fail to adequately address the problem of illegal immigration, and ensure that Congress has to revisit the issue years from now. Even the Congressional Budget Office projects that the Gang’s bill would prevent, at most, only half of future illegal immigration. Will GOP supporters of the bill be able to resist the pressure from liberal groups when they are confronted with the very same humanitarian arguments they’re making today?
“If it is morally wrong to disrupt family unity by enforcing the law, or to deny citizenship to people who have committed crimes, how can we then apply tough enforcement measures in the future?” says the GOP aide. “That is not an argument for a one-time amnesty, but for a perpetual state of lawlessness.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.