“We all know that this bill is going nowhere. We are wasting our time,” declared Minority Whip Steny Hoyer when he joined the 138 House Democrats who voted against the Secure Fence Act in early September. Hoyer let liberal wishful thinking triumph over reality. On Thursday morning, President Bush signed exactly that authorization to build a 700-mile fence along the southern border.
The bill that went nowhere was the “comprehensive” reform, favored by President Bush and congressional Democrats, that granted amnesty to millions and guest-worker status to millions more. The House Republicans’ enforcement-first approach to immigration reform — at least a piece of it — won decisively when the Secure Fence Act passed the Senate by a margin of 80-1. But the battle isn’t over; it’s merely suspended. The enforcement agenda will lose decisively if the next immigration-reform bill President Bush signs is the handiwork of Speaker Pelosi’s House Democrats.
Rep. Hoyer had plenty of company when he dismissed the prospect that the enforcement-first agenda could triumph over all the influential lobbies in favor of amnesty for illegal aliens and the business community’s insistence on a guest-worker program. Elite opinion held that the House Republicans’ position was politically poisonous. Illegals marched in the streets, and the talk was of an inevitable House Republican backdown. But the public’s engagement in the first debate on immigration policies in 20 years revealed widespread support for border control. In competitive races across the country, candidates of both parties are now declaring their opposition to amnesty and backing barriers at the border.
In addition to the fencing, the Secure Fence Act also requires the Department of Homeland Security to gain “operational control” of the entire southern border through the use of unmanned aerial drones, cameras, and ground sensors. “Doesn’t the president have enough swagger to tell [House Speaker Dennis Hastert] not to do this?” asked Minority Leader Harry Reid on the eve of the House vote. It turned out that Reid lacked the swagger to keep most of his own troops from defecting to the enforcement-first camp. Although congressional Democrats fought to hold border security hostage to an amnesty scheme and new guest-worker program, they were overmatched by the public’s demand, and the House Republicans’ resolve, to avoid the mistakes of the past by securing the border before undertaking broader reforms.
At stake in this election is whether this sentiment will continue to prevail, or whether a Democratic majority in the House — backed by elite opinion — will again take U.S. immigration policy the opposite, more liberal direction. Comprehensive immigration reform already enjoys President’s Bush’s endorsement and filibuster-proof support in the Senate. Passing an amnesty and guest-worker bill as a companion to the Secure Fence Act would be at the top of Speaker Pelosi’s agenda. It’s impossible to predict all the consequences of a congressional Democratic majority, but a win for congressional Democrats will clearly be a win for amnesty.
On the issue of immigration, majorities of Republicans in both the Senate and House have sided with their conservative base against not just left-wing civil-rights groups and elite opinion, but also a business lobby accustomed to plenty of cheap labor, Republican-party poobahs, and President Bush. They have withstood withering press criticism and pressure from their deep-pocketed donors. It has been a dispiriting session of Congress, but on this crucial issue, congressional Republicans have acted with courage and commitment. If only on the basis of immigration, they deserve their own amnesty from conservative voters disenchanted by other GOP disappointments and failures.