Politics & Policy

Getting With The Enforcement Program

Lawmakers sense voter good sense on immigration.

Over the past week, popular sentiment made itself felt in government for the first time in decades.

No, I don’t mean the Iraqi elections–I mean immigration policymaking in Congress.

The House of Representatives easily approved Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s immigration-enforcement bill (H.R. 4437) Friday night, after adding several strengthening amendments and turning back an aggressive attempt to insert a call for a new “temporary” worker program.

And the Senate approved the budget reconciliation bill Wednesday, stripped of provisions inserted by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter that would have increased permanent immigration by up to 350,000 per year and added 30,000 cheap-labor visas for the computer industry. House conferees hammering out the budget bill had insisted these provisions be removed.

The connection between these two developments is that the public’s craving for immigration control, and discomfort with endless mass immigration, is becoming more intense and harder for politicians to ignore. A recent USA Today poll shows that nearly two thirds of the public disapproves of the president’s handling of immigration, a ten-point jump since January and second only to disapproval on “gas and home heating prices.” And a majority of the public wants the level of immigration reduced; only 15 percent want it increased. Along the same lines, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found majorities who felt the United States was “too open” to immigration and that immigration “weakens the U.S.”

Although these numbers aren’t terribly different from the past, the urgency has increased for many voters. The Republican establishment got a taste of this urgency during the special election in California for Chris Cox’s House seat. Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist kept the anointed Republican, state senator John Campbell, to under 50 percent in the all-party primary in November and forced a runoff earlier this month. Though Campbell won the seat with a plurality of the runoff vote, he actually did worse than in the first round, whereas Gilchrist, an inexperienced campaigner with a lot of political baggage, picked up 10 points, to take a total of 25 percent of the vote.

Bob Novak wrote that House Republican leaders had said “a strong showing by Gilchrist–anything above 20 to 25 percent–[would be] bad news for the future of Bush’s immigration plan.” John Fund reported that Gilchrist was seen as having outperformed expectations and that one House member told him “members will be spooked at the thought of primary challengers or third-party candidates draining votes from them with an immigrant-bashing platform.”

Nor was immigration a factor in just this one special election. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona announced his retirement rather than face another stiff Republican primary challenge from state representative Randy Graf. Graf won 43 percent of the primary vote last time running against Kolbe’s opposition to tough immigration enforcement and support for amnesty.

It was this sense that the electorate is demanding real immigration enforcement, and would no longer be fooled by the usual cliches and bromides, that led the House leadership to craft a relatively strong bill and stand fast in the face of business opposition. Even the White House strongly endorsed the Sensenbrenner legislation. Public fury has moved the center on immigration in Congress so much that Rep. Tom Tancredo, who has worked for years to get his colleagues to take the issue seriously, was able to sit back last week and let others do the heavy lifting for a change.

But the real news is that even Democrats are responding to the growing anger over immigration anarchy. Fearing the political fallout of sticking to the Democratic party’s persistent hostility to immigration control, Nancy Pelosi gave her members a green light to vote how they wanted on last week’s immigration votes. Roy Beck, president of the pro-control group Numbers USA, has looked at the results and found that 75 House Democrats–more than one third of the caucus–voted on the pro-control side in at least one of four crucial roll-call votes last week: the final vote for passage, as well as votes on amendments to extend the Mexican border fence, to kill the visa lottery, and to promote state and local cooperation with federal immigration authorities. In ten states (all red last November), every Democrat voted the right way on at least one of these roll calls.

This suggests that things might not go according to plan when the Senate takes up its own immigration bill next year, probably in February. The expectation is that the Senate will pass an amnesty/guestworker bill along the lines of one sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy, with some enforcement thrown in as a fig leaf. Once the two bodies try to come up with a compromise bill, the White House plans to pull out all the stops to force the House members of the conference committee to swallow the Senate’s version of the bill.

But the ground is shifting. It used to be that Robert Byrd was the only Democratic senator to support immigration enforcement, with occasional help from Dianne Feinstein. And, in fact, it was Byrd who tried to stop Arlen Specter’s huge immigration increases when they were snuck into the budget bill (Byrd failed, but they were stripped out in conference at House insistence).

But earlier this year, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Byron Dorgan each introduced tough enforcement bills that did not have any amnesty provisions. Whether they actually believe in controlling immigration is beside the point (Nelson, for instance, has a career D+ grade from the pro-control Americans for Better Immigration)–what matters is that they realize the public believes in it, and cares more about it than ever before.

Research has found that the gap between public and elite opinions on immigration is enormous–wider even than on issues like support for foreign aid or the U.N. The result is a law that looks strict on paper–to satisfy occasional public interest–but is seldom enforced, satisfying elite preferences. But such a gap is only possible when the public gives its representatives a pass on the issue, letting lawmakers respond to interest-group pressure without fear of voter backlash. That appears to be changing.

NRO Contributor Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies..

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