Congress is boring. It can’t even make new false promises.
On border security, it keeps making the same assurances. The Gang of Eight immigration bill, which could well be the signature legislative accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s second term, travels in the well-worn ruts of past immigration promises. The Gang of Eight is offering this basic deal: “We will pretend to enforce the law, if you pretend to believe us.”
The Gang of Eight bill purports to create an exit-entry visa system that Congress has been mandating since 1996. Back then, only the most cynical of observers would have believed that 17 years later, Congress would seek to pass a new amnesty for roughly 11 million illegal aliens partly in exchange for the very same entry-exit system. But in the immigration debate, cynicism always pays.
In 2006, Congress passed a law calling for about 700 miles of double-layer fencing on the border. We’ve built about 36 miles, or a good, solid 5 percent. At this rate, we’ll have all the double fencing in another 130 years. The rest of the mileage is various forms of inferior fencing, in keeping with a loophole Congress passed the very next year giving the Department of Homeland Security discretion in how it would go about building the fence.
Executive discretion is where border enforcement goes to die, and as it happens, the Gang of Eight enforcement provisions are entirely at the mercy of the executive. The secretary of Homeland Security merely submits a plan to do the things the executive branch has been mandated to do, but failed to do in the past. Who decides whether it is working? The secretary of Homeland Security.
This is so self-evidently ridiculous, even the Gang of Eight apparently realizes it needs to make some gesture toward toughening the bill. For his part, Florida senator Marco Rubio is doing the best Hamlet since John Gielgud. He is refusing to say whether he will vote “yes” on his own Gang of Eight bill after spending months drafting, defending, and helping shepherd it to the floor. He has supposedly discovered that the enforcement provisions are inadequate, although he has done countless interviews insisting the bill contains the “toughest immigration-enforcement measures in the history of the United States.”
Another basic problem in the architecture of the bill is that the amnesty comes before anything else, giving the Obama administration, ethnic interest groups, and the business lobby every incentive to resist any enforcement measures after they pass.
Rubio is loath to admit that the amnesty comes first, although in a recent interview on Univision, he indeed admitted it: “First comes the legalization. Then come the measures to secure the border. And then comes the process of permanent residence.” In a subsequent interview, he said he was inartful, which in Washington is a synonym for “frank.” When he’s speaking more artfully, he is careful to blur the difference between the initial amnesty and the process of getting a green card to give the misimpression that enforcement has to happen before anything else does.
Not that he’ll use the word “amnesty.” A hallmark of Republican supporters of the Gang of Eight bill is stating their earnest opposition to amnesty at the same time they support amnesty. They call the status quo a “de facto” amnesty, but refuse to make the basic concession to logic that codifying the “de facto” amnesty makes it a “de jure” amnesty. They readily call the 1986 immigration reform “amnesty,” even though the essential features of the Gang of Eight bill — legalization with a few symbolic hoops for the newly legal immigrants — are exactly the same.
The Gang of Eight bill is powered, in large part, by pretense and word games. If this bill passes, and then a decade or so from now we need another amnesty, the road map to passage will be easy: Congress can promise to follow up on the Gang of Eight’s enforcement measures — yet again.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2013 King Features Syndicate