Politics & Policy

Amnesty Eight

The Senate Tuesday voted to revive its misbegotten immigration bill, with the help of a handful of senators who claim to oppose amnesty but voted to proceed. They are now getting what they voted for, as H. L. Mencken put it, good and hard — with a 370-page “clay pigeon” amendment that is supposed to be digested and voted on by the end of the week. If the bill had been defeated yesterday, it would have been gone for at least two years and probably longer. Instead, it is a little closer to passage. But first it has to overcome another cloture vote scheduled for tomorrow. Again, the bill needs 60 votes to survive.

It got 64 votes yesterday. If all of the senators who voted against cloture stand firm, then, five senators would have to switch to no to defeat the bill on Thursday. Those votes are available from a bipartisan group of eight senators who have profound doubts about this bill. Our reporting suggests these senators are most likely to be persuaded to vote no on Thursday and derail amnesty. They are Sens. Kit Bond (R., Mo.), Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), Richard Burr (R., N.C.), Norm Coleman (R. Minn), John Ensign (R. Nev.), Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) and Jim Webb (D., Va.).

Senators opposed to amnesty tended to justify their votes for cloture Tuesday by saying that they want one last shot at improving the bill. That sounds reasonable enough. But the entire exercise in the Senate is about passing the core “Grand Bargain” — that is, immediate legal status for illegal aliens in exchange for promises of enforcement later. Any amendment that truly threatens the bargain won’t pass, although the Republican Grand Bargainers are willing to go as far as they dare in putting more enforcement around the edges of the deal. For weeks, they insisted that the bill was tough on enforcement, but suddenly it now needs all sorts of enhancements. It is transparent that their commitment to these enhancements begins and ends with the need to pick off enough Republican votes to get through the next cloture vote.

The main provision they want to add, the “touchback,” is ridiculous. The original Grand Bargain stipulated that while illegal immigrants would get legal status almost immediately, they would have to leave the country to file their applications for green cards. The improved Grand Bargain — if Sens. Jon Kyl, Lindsey Graham, and Mel Martinez get their way — would also give illegal immigrants legal status, but would have them leave the country to file their applications for permanent Z visas. It is a meaningless distinction. Under either scenario, illegal aliens will have been made legal — that’s the amnesty — and then will have to make an entirely symbolic trek abroad for no purpose other than to give supporters of the Grand Bargain a tough-sounding sound bite during the next few days.

For years, supporters of amnesty have told us that deportation is impractical in contemporary America. But now the Grand Bargainers’ press releases teem with promises of deportation. Senator Graham’s office explains what would happen to heads of household who refuse to go along with the touchback requirement: “They will be deported along with their spouse and any non-American citizen children.” (Their American citizen children will presumably be sent to the nearest orphanage.) “Aliens who overstay their visa by more than 60 days will be apprehended, detained, and deported.” (Aliens who have overstayed for 59 days will generously be allowed exactly another 24 hours before their apprehension and deportation.) Given that we can’t find 600,000 absconders in the country now, these promises are obviously laughable. And if deportation is such a ready tool in our immigration arsenal it should be used now, to shrink the illegal population that is already here; it should not be coupled with an amnesty that will entice more illegals into the country.

The game remains the same: Pass amnesty by giving it some enforcement cover. Senators opposing amnesty or skeptical of the bill who voted yes on cloture Tuesday have blessed a ramshackle process that has the Senate considering extremely consequential and complicated legislation on the fly; allowed the bill to take a step without which it could never make it into law; and enabled all the insider gamesmanship (see the Kyl-Graham-Martinez amendment) that will be used to force it over the next set of procedural obstacles. We fear some of these senators will now try to argue that a vote against final passage is enough. It isn’t. The best remaining chance to defeat the bill is on cloture on Thursday. These senators should vote no, or be known forevermore as the Amnesty Eight: the senators who could have blocked amnesty, but didn’t.

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

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