Politics & Policy

Enforcement First

In the wake of large protests over the weekend by illegal aliens demanding amnesty and their supporters, the Senate is scheduled to begin debating immigration on Tuesday.

In December, the House of Representatives passed an immigration bill based on the principle of “enforcement first”: There should be no amnesty or guest-worker program until real immigration enforcement is in place. Over the past several weeks, the Senate Judiciary Committee under Arlen Specter has been trying to reverse that principle by packaging legalization of illegal aliens (a.k.a. amnesty) and guest-worker programs together with promises of future enforcement.

A bit of background: Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Democrats’ standard bearer on immigration, joined with Sen. John McCain to promote a broad amnesty for the 12 million illegal aliens already here, plus a large increase in new immigration. Judiciary chairman Specter offered a slightly less sweeping amnesty, but packaged it with an unlimited guest-worker program and an increase in immigration of 1 million people per year.

The Senate’s approach to immigration so far might thus be described by Mary Poppins: A spoonful of enforcement helps the amnesty go down. This is the same bait-and-switch approach Congress took in 1986, when it passed a large amnesty in exchange for a ban on hiring future illegal aliens, as a way to turn off the magnet that attracted illegals in the first place. Naturally, once the amnesty ran its course, promises of enforcement were abandoned; in 2004, according to the Government Accountability Office, only three employers in the entire country were fined for the knowing employment of illegal aliens.

Although a majority of the Judiciary Committee shares the goal of legalizing the illegal population and providing for large increases in the importation of foreign labor, differences among the members have slowed progress. The McCain-Kennedy approach, for instance, would put illegals on track for citizenship, while Specter’s proposal would have them remain permanently as an outsider class not eligible for citizenship.

The lack of progress prompted Sen. Bill Frist to introduce his own measure, presented as an enforcement-only bill. Initial hopes that the majority leader had seen the wisdom of the House approach were dashed when it became clear that the valuable enforcement measures in his bill were combined with a doubling of legal-immigration levels. What’s more, Frist has made clear that he will abandon his bill if the members of the Judiciary Committee manage to agree on what kind of amnesty they want.

Insistence on a front-loaded amnesty may keep anything the Senate passes from being approved by the House. Seventy-one congressmen, led by Rep. Tom Tancredo, recently sent a letter to Specter criticizing “thinly disguised attempts to provide amnesty,” adding that “if the Senate were to pass such a proposal, we believe it would doom any chance of a real reform bill reaching the President’s desk this year.”

There is evidence that, despite the sorry state of the debate in the Senate, the intellectual consensus is shifting. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson–no conservative, certainly, but a clear thinker on economic issues–has written twice recently about the importance of tough immigration enforcement and “the myth that the U.S. economy ‘needs’ more poor immigrants.” He concludes that, “to make immigration succeed, we need to curb some immigration”–although he also calls for amnesty, on the grounds that many illegals are rooted here, and we were complicit in letting them settle in the first place.

Perhaps. Although we at National Review have never made a secret of our skepticism about amnesty, it’s a legitimate topic of debate. But that debate should begin only after we reassert control over immigration. Enforcement first.

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