In 2006 something extraordinary happened in immigration politics. As Al Gore might put it, the people defeated the powerful. The much-maligned Republican 109th Congress passed immigration-enforcement legislation to build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, without including an amnesty for illegal immigrants. President Bush has declared he will sign the bill today. How did this happen?
One year ago elites had crafted a much different scenario. It was going to be amnesty for 12 million illegal immigrants, a massive increase in legal (and low-skilled) immigration accompanied by tepid and cosmetic “enforcement” measures.
It appeared to be a very uneven contest. On the “comprehensive” reform (i.e., amnesty) side were the mainstays of power, money, and polite society: Big Media (the major TV networks, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), Big Business (Chamber of Commerce, leading corporations), Big Labor (AFL-CIO), Big Religion (the mainstream Protestant and Catholic hierarchies), and Big Politics (Bush administration, Senator McCain, the Senate leadership, Senator Kennedy, and the Democratic leaders in both houses).
On the other side of this strange, but real and inverted, class war were radio talk-show hosts; individual business people; most rank and file union workers; most average church parishioners (in high-church as well as low-church congregations); the majority of House Republicans (92 percent), and the majority of Senate Republicans (59 percent). But, most significantly, the anti-amnesty side also included the vast majority of the American people. According to Rasmussen, 67 percent preferred enforcing existing law and controlling the border “before new reforms are considered,” and Zogby reported that 64 percent preferred the House bill over the Senate bill.
In December 2005 the House passed the Sensenbrenner-King “enforcement first” bill that provided for a 700 mile border fence, allowed local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and rejected amnesty. In June 2006 the Senate passed legislation (supported by McCain, Kennedy, Reed, and Hagel) that would give amnesty to most illegal immigrants, vastly increase legal immigration for low-skilled workers, and, incredibly, restrict local police from working with federal immigration agents to stop terrorism.
For example, under the Senate bill local police could not check the immigration status of a potential terrorist who was stopped for speeding. Four of the 9/11 terrorists who were in the U.S. illegally were stopped for speeding, but their immigration status was never checked and reported to federal agents. To their credit, most Senate Republicans opposed the Senate bill. These Republicans include many up for reelection this year: Santorum (Pa.), Talent (Mo.), Allen (Va.), Burns (Mont.), Ensign (Nev.), and Kyl, (Ariz.).
Once both houses of Congress had acted, the elites demanded that the House “compromise,” meaning essentially that they give in to the Senate bill. But the House decided instead first to listen to the American people and held a series of field hearings across the country. Then elites (of both the Left and Right, one might add) got really nasty. Big Media painted House leaders like Denny Hastert, Jim Sensenbrenner, Peter King, and John Hostettler as the designated villains of this drama. They were denigrated as yahoos, bigots, and xenophobes, ironically, by the same elites who are always warning us about “hate speech” and calling for “civility” in public discourse. The smart money told us that only “comprehensive” legislation could be enacted.
But the House held firm, said “no” to amnesty, and came back with another enforcement-first bill. This time the Senate (now with the support of Majority Leader Bill Frist) passed a House-oriented bill, and the president has agreed to sign it. In the end the House leadership — with the support of their strong Senate allies: Sessions (Ala.), Santorum (Pa.), Inhofe (Okla.), Coburn (Okla.), Isakson (Ga.), Vitter (La.), Kyl (Ariz.) — prevailed against all odds. To be sure, we will have to monitor closely the implementation of the Secure Fence Act. Nevertheless, at this point, the 2006 immigration legislation constitutes a major conservative victory.
To return to our initial question: How did this happen? The answer is that it happened because the House Republican leadership (with help from Senate conservatives) made immigration enforcement a priority, fought for it, and won in the face of vehement elite opposition.
We all know that the November elections could result in a defeat for the House (and perhaps the Senate) Republicans. Make no mistake: A change in House leadership from Republican to Democrat will mean a major change in immigration policy. It will mean amnesty, a massive increase in legal, low-skilled immigration, and the gutting of serious border and interior enforcement.
Some conservatives are angry at the 109th Congress for not being conservative enough on a variety of issues. They want to “punish” the Republicans in November. For more than two months the MSM (mainstream media) has been repeating this theme ad nauseum and certain conservative activists and writers have become their enablers.
The elites are hoping that conservatives will abandon those congressmen and senators who had the temerity (and perhaps, even worse, the bad manners) to reject amnesty and faux enforcement unapologetically. Elites are hoping that conservatives will abandon the likes of Rick Santorum, John Hostettler, Peter King, John Doolittle, Thelma Drake, J. D. Hayworth, Conrad Burns, George Allen, Jim Talent, Jon Kyl, the House leadership, and all the rest of the those that they consider “yahoos.”
Perhaps elites are right, and conservatives truly are, in John Stuart Mill’s famous phrase, the “stupid party.” But, I’m betting this is not true, and that come Tuesday, November 7, conservatives will go to the polls in large numbers and stand with those who stood with them — and more importantly, beyond partisan considerations, stand with those who stood for our national interests as Americans over the special interests of elites.
— John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.