Politics & Policy

Turn Up the Heat

As Congress heads out for Memorial Day, the immigration bill continues to enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate. We hope congressmen are challenged on the details of the bill at their events back home. We suspect that, compared with the Washington press corps, constituents will demand more candor and less cant. If they do, they will find that the bill’s contents don’t match its promises.

The Bush-Kennedy deal that supporters talk about is exquisitely balanced: Immigration laws will be more seriously enforced, in return for a “path to citizenship” for 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants. In reality, illegal immigrants are far more interested in legal status than in citizenship. The bill gives them that immediately. (It is a prize available only to those aliens who have violated our immigration laws.) The enforcement provisions in the bill, meanwhile, are meaningless.

At Thursday’s press conference, President Bush declared, “So this legislation requires that border-security and worker-verification targets are met before other provisions of the bill are triggered.” That is untrue. Illegal aliens can get “probationary” legal status as soon as the bill is enacted. Because every illegal alien present in the country is presumptively eligible for legal status, the enforcement of immigration laws will be effectively suspended.

To get this status illegal immigrants must only clear a one-day background check. No fines or penalties must be paid. It is impossible to believe that millions of people will have this legal status revoked if the promised improvements in enforcement are never realized.

Some conservatives are fooling themselves into thinking that this bill will represent a switch from chain migration by extended families to a merit-based system. But immigrant-rights groups roundly condemn this change as “anti-family,” and they will have eight years to persuade the next administration to stop it before it happens.

All of these illusions and empty promises don’t come free. About two-thirds of illegal aliens, and 40 percent of legal immigrants admitted to foster “family reunification,” lack a high-school education. These unskilled immigrants have a net cost to taxpayers of $19,000 a year. Defenders of the bill would rather look at the financial contributions of college-educated immigrants. But the illegal aliens who would get amnesty under this bill are far more likely to fall into the net-cost category.

Supporters of this bill, starting with the White House, have no real answers to these criticisms. Instead they have tarred conservative opponents of the bill as mindless bigots. (Mindless bigots like George Will?) Perhaps because they have so little respect for the critics, they think that they can distract them by citing irrelevancies. Thus, the White House issues long “fact sheets” that attempt to show that a rigorous background check will be performed before amnesty is given, but skip right over the immediate grant of “probationary” legal status.

Politicians won’t have to stand next to the charcoal grill to feel the heat if voters hold them to account for this bill over the weekend.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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