Leaders of both parties had agreed on an immigration plan, and everyone they knew was on board. They seemed confident that they could marginalize their opponents, caricaturing them as bigots and silencing them in Congress. So what happened?
What happened is that the American people came out of the shadows. Their opposition to the Senate’s grand compromise, amplified and given voice by talk radio and other dissenting media voices, were enough to carry the day.
The result is not a failure of bipartisanship but a triumph of it. In a procedural vote last night, members of both parties objected to the backroom deal-making and dealt what we hope will be the fatal blow to “comprehensive immigration reform.”
President Bush has been gravely weakened by his loss of this battle, and it is a loss for which he has only himself to blame. He now faces a choice. He can continue to press forward with a flawed bill that probably won’t pass, at the cost of the continued alienation of his base. It is a testament to the damaged political instincts of this bruised and battered White House that it is this course — stubbornness — that it seems to be taking.
In his radio address Friday, President Bush continued to urge passage of the compromise plan. He said, “I know some of you doubt that the federal government will make good on the border security and enforcement commitments in this bill. My administration is determined to learn from the mistakes of the past decades.” Those “past decades,” please note, include the past six years. In recent months enforcement has been beefed up to make it easier to get this bill passed. If the president had done more, earlier, on this front, he might very well have gotten some type of amnesty through.
Instead of “comprehensive” reform, Bush should choose a second option: consecutive reform. During this debate, both the comprehensivists and their opponents have stressed the critical need to control the border and to give employers a reliable system to verify the legal status of their workers. There is no reason that either imperative should wait on resolution of the amnesty or guest-worker questions. The administration has often said that enforcement cannot work without an amnesty or guest-worker program; but it has refuted that claim by pointing out that its border-enforcement measures have brought the number of illegal crossings down.
When Americans are confident that the government is committed to enforcing any immigration laws, they will be more open to changes to those laws. We are skeptical about the need for a guest-worker program or a sweeping amnesty. But we would be willing to debate these policies in a few years’ time. They are not even worth debating, however, until we know that we are not merely legalizing millions of illegal immigrants while inviting millions more to be legalized in some future round of “reform.”
Last September, the Secure Fence Act, designed “to establish operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States,” passed the Senate on an 80-19 vote. It was supported by every Democratic candidate running for president and by Republican senators McCain, Martinez, and Graham. Mr. President, build on that overwhelming bipartisan support. Build that fence.