Regardless of their respective positions on immigration reform, legislators on both the dovish and hawkish sides of the debate should agree on one fundamental principle: The Nancy Pelosi approach to lawmaking — pass the bill to find out what’s in it — is no way to go about repairing our defective immigration system.
Supporters of so-called comprehensive immigration reform are positioned to rush through legislation in the Senate — “with all deliberate speed,” in the words of Vermont’s Patrick Leahy — and have been critical of Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions and others who have called for a more thorough (and necessarily more time-consuming) examination of the issues in question. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), himself a supporter of broad-reaching immigration reform, has specifically and repeatedly warned that the legislative process here should feature ample time for open, public debate and comment, along with a generous allotment of time for amending and revising the legislation. Responsible legislators on both sides of the aisle would do well to listen to him.
“But we’ve been debating these issues for decades,” the argument goes. True enough. But we have not been debating the specific legislation under consideration for decades, years, weeks, days, hours, minutes, or milliseconds: As of this writing, the text of the bill has not even been finalized, much less made public, and still less been subject to rigorous debate.
The distinction is important. Senator Sessions and others are not calling for delay for the sake of delay. They are asking for time to examine thoroughly the specifics of the legislation. The price of failing to do that can be very high: See, for example, the Affordable Care Act, which already has evolved into an incomprehensible mass of regulations with an ever-growing price tag, or New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s rushed-through gun-control legislation, which the governor himself already has conceded is unworkable. Immigration reform is too important to go about willy-nilly; there are key questions of national interest at stake, not to mention the futures of millions of immigrants.
What the Senate has produced so far is not a piece of legislation but a set of principles. It is one thing to say that we will offer a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants contingent upon certain triggers related to improved border-security measures. Even if one accepts the underlying tradeoff, the questions of how such measures would be structured, how such a program would be implemented, and how security benchmarks would be verified are critical, and the answers to those questions are far from self-evident.
We support some provisions under discussion, such as requiring all employers to use the E-Verify system to determine whether job candidates are legally entitled to work in the United States, but again the implementation issues — How much is the fine for failure to comply? Who provides the underlying data and how? What to do about the problem of false Social Security numbers? — are complex. They merit lengthy and robust public debate. The legislation will necessarily need to be revised as that debate proceeds, which is not an overnight job. And those are only two aspects of a much more complicated legislative package.
Senate Republican staffs are notably light on nitty-gritty immigration-law expertise. The Democrats, on the other hand, are able to draw upon the vast resources of the Obama administration and its appointees at such key agencies as the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A right-here-right-now legislative process is an invitation for Republicans to set themselves up for getting rolled by the Obama administration and its congressional enablers.
Senator Leahy protests that “if we do not act quickly and decisively, we will lose the opportunity we now have to fix our immigration system.” But why should that be? A bill that will not stand up to sustained investigation and debate is a bill that does not deserve to become a law. Further, there is no reason to conclude that every aspect of immigration reform must be lumped into a single bill: Border security, to take the most obvious example, is worth doing on its own, regardless of independent issues such as the ongoing status of illegal immigrants. The mania for legislative gigantism leads to bad law.
Senator Leahy also protests that his committee already has held hearings on the subject of immigration reform. That is true — but it has not held hearings on this bill. Congressional Republicans, and Americans at large, should be highly skeptical of the Democrats’ attempt to rush through this legislation — legislation that remains, at the moment, literally a sight unseen. Debates over the spirit of the law may be inevitable, but it would be helpful to get the letter of the law right in the first place. This is not one of Senator Reid’s cowboy-poetry festivals; rather, the appropriate advice comes from a poet of a different caliber: “Wisely, and slow; they stumble that run fast.”