Distrust and Then Verify
Rushing through immigration reform risks repeating the mistakes of the past.

Members of the Senate "Gang of Eight," January 28, 2013


John Fund

If we get a comprehensive immigration bill rammed through Congress this spring, it will be because once again too many Democrats and Republicans worked overtime to keep the American people in the dark.

The White House is praising the self-appointed “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators who are drafting the measure behind closed doors. Press secretary Jay Carney says immigration debates in past years mean that further consideration of the issue is unnecessary, and that legislators now have “a great opportunity” to bypass the “regular order” of Senate business and move quickly.


Similarly, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy said in a letter last month that the immigration bill would be acted on “with all deliberate speed.” After Florida Republican Marco Rubio called for extensive hearings and opportunities to amend the bill instead, Leahy responded that he would “consider” holding a single hearing and then moving for a quick floor vote “without unnecessary delay.”

We’ve been this way before. In 2007, a bill pushed by President Bush and the late Ted Kennedy was written behind closed doors, bypassed the Judiciary Committee, and was rushed to the floor for a vote. That effort collapsed after a public uproar. In the end, 37 Republicans, 15 Democrats, and an independent voted to table the bill versus only 46 who wanted to proceed. Then-senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, an early backer of the bill, told the New York Times that the secrecy around it left people confused and “caused it to flop.”

Today, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, tells me, “The same interest groups who are meeting in secret with the eight senators are the ones who met in secret back in 2007.”

Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, has said that the goal of addressing the immigration mess makes their meetings worthwhile. But he warns that any repeat of the tactics of 2007 will cause him to withdraw his support. “A rush to legislate, without fully considering all views and input from all senators, would be fatal to the effort of earning the public’s confidence,” Rubio wrote to Leahy last week.

Rushing through immigration reform without a full review also risks repeating the mistakes of 1986, when the last major legislation to address the issue was signed into law. Few observers anticipated the impact that bill would have on border security, low-skill workers, and welfare benefits. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, a staunch supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, notes: “Critics on the right assail the last big immigration reform, in 1986, and they have a point. That reform offered citizenship to current illegal immigrants but it failed to set up a process for future legal immigration to meet the needs of fast-moving labor markets. Thus it created an incentive for foreigners to arrive illegally and never leave lest they never be able to return to the U.S. if they did go home. Avoiding that mistake should be one of the main goals of this or any other immigration reform.”

Right now, despite a deal last Friday between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the issue of guest workers, the best guess is that any program will fall far short of removing the temptation for people to cross the border illegally. Under the deal between unions and business, a new program for low-skilled workers would begin with 20,000 visas a year and gradually grow, in years when the U.S. unemployment rate was quite low, to a maximum cap of 200,000.

Old hands along the U.S.-Mexican border think that such a proposal ignores the lessons of a past guest-worker program, which helped solve a crisis on the border in the 1950s. At that time, arrests of illegal aliens were at 885,000 a year, close to today’s levels. But President Dwight Eisenhower worked with Congress to replace a huge illegal labor force with an expansion of the Bracero program that had started in 1942 to address World War II labor shortages. The legal workers obtained contracts that specified their pay and living conditions.

Under the expanded program, some 300,000 Mexican workers entered the U.S. legally every year. As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted in 1980, “Without question, the Bracero program was . . . instrumental in ending the illegal alien problem” of the time. By 1959, arrests of illegal aliens had fallen to 45,000 a year; they remained under 100,000 until President Lyndon Johnson ended the Bracero program in 1964 at the behest of Big Labor, which didn’t want workers in the United States who wouldn’t become union members.

Republicans who are willing to trade a path to citizenship for today’s illegal workers for a guest-worker program should be cautioned by history. Senate Democrats cut the guts out of a genuine guest-worker program back in 2007, and one of the chief knife-wielders was a freshman senator named Barack Obama.