The House leadership’s decision to outline a series of “principles” with respect to immigration reform has given new life to an issue some had pronounced dead. However, some fear it will distract from the continuing problems with Obamacare, problems that call into question the Obama administration’s ability to implement an immigration overhaul of similar scale and complexity.
A number of House Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), have argued that the Obamacare fiasco is to blame for their reluctance to tackle immigration reform. They questioned the wisdom of passing, as the Senate did last June, a comprehensive reform bill totaling more than 1,000 pages that would award near-immediate legal status to roughly 8 million illegal immigrants, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Other Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), one of the architects of the Senate bill, have suggested that President Obama cannot be trusted to properly implement a large-scale immigration reform, given the countless waivers and exemptions he has handed out with respect to Obamacare. Conservative skeptics have long argued that there would be little stopping the administration from fully implementing aspects of the new law it likes, such as legalization and citizenship for illegal immigrants, while completely ignoring the provisions it doesn’t like, such as increased border security and interior enforcement. As Rubio told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham yesterday, “even people that would like to do something on [immigration reform] are finding it hard to argue against that.”
There are also legitimate questions as to whether any administration would be able to adequately implement the proposed reforms — let alone the Obama administration, which has appeared embarrassingly incompetent at times. Implementing the Gang of Eight legislation, for example, would be a massive task comparable to the Obamacare rollout. Millions of applications for legal status would need to be processed within the first year. In fact, the number of illegal immigrants who the CBO projects would be legalized in relatively short order under the bill is more than four times
the number of immigrants legalized under the 1986 immigration-reform law, which is generally viewed as a failure because it strikingly did not live up to proponents’ promises that it would prevent the need for any future amnesty.
Implementation of the 1986 reform also created numerous opportunities for fraud, and it suffered from insufficient oversight and enforcement. For example, immigration officials approved more than 90 percent of the 1.3 million applications for legal status as part of a special program for agricultural workers, despite the fact that nearly a third of those applications were flagged for possible fraud. The Gang of Eight legislation would inevitably create similar risks and enormous oversight challenges as millions applied for several different categories of legal status and work visas — for agricultural workers, high-tech workers, DREAMers, and so on.
Kenneth Palinkas, who heads the union representing employees of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), strongly opposed the Gang of Eight legislation on the grounds that his agency, which will be charged with processing the millions of applications for legal status, is woefully unprepared to handle such a task. Palinkas predicted that, if passed, the Gang of Eight bill “would lead to the rubber-stamping of millions of applications for both amnesty and future admissions” and “weaken the integrity of our immigration system.”
“We are currently lacking the manpower, training, office space, and mission support to achieve what our jobs demand,” Palinkas wrote in a letter to members of Congress last year. Immigration adjudicators faced “impossible time constraints” and “dangerous pressure to hurriedly approve applications” that would be exacerbated by the proposed reforms.
“The question is not will this work, the question is how badly will it collapse,” says a senior GOP aide opposed to the Gang of Eight legislation. At least when it comes to Obamacare, the aide argues, the administration has an incentive to implement and fully enforce some of the law’s most controversial provisions, such as the individual mandate. In the case of immigration reform, Democrats and liberal activists are certain to pressure the administration to relax certain provisions from the moment a law is passed, and President Obama has already shown a willingness to ignore the law when it suits him. At the very least, these considerations ought to be enough to make House Republicans think twice before rushing to act on immigration reform, especially in an election year.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.