For months, the establishment dismissed those of us opposed to amnesty as a tiny minority of the public and the Congress. On Thursday, that “tiny minority” outnumbered the pro-amnesty forces in the Senate, dealing a humiliating and well-deserved defeat to President Bush. The same White House that insisted that there was no realistic alternative to “comprehensive immigration reform” had better recalibrate its realism now. There always were better alternatives, and the president and his party have no way out of the immigration morass he has created unless they pursue them.
Nor does the country. The public is rightly dismayed at our incapacity to exercise a key attribute of sovereignty: control of the borders. For decades, our elected officials have passed immigration laws that they lack the political will to enforce. Among the fallacies of “comprehensive reform” was the notion that this situation could be fixed instantaneously. It cannot. But by rejecting a solution that would make the problem worse, we may have taken the first of many steps toward a better immigration system.
The next step ought to be President Bush’s. As divisive as this debate has been, it did reveal a consensus on the need to enforce current laws. The president should accept that consensus and act on it. If necessary, he should request additional authority and resources for the purpose.
Under current law, the border can be secured and the administration can crack down on scofflaw employers. Contractors can be required to enroll in the government’s employee-verification system as a condition of doing business with the federal government. The Social Security Administration identifies tens of thousands of W-2 forms with false or stolen Social Security numbers. The IRS can fine employers who file a significant number of such forms.
In arguing for the comprehensive reform, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said that his department needed data from the Social Security Administration to enforce the law on employers. There never was any need to hold that simple reform hostage to amnesty, and the president should ask Congress to enact it now. He should also clarify that state and local law-enforcement agencies have the constitutional authority to make arrests for violations of federal immigration laws.
Bush could also learn from some of the amendments offered during the recent debate. Court-ordered restrictions on deportation should, where possible, be eased. “Sanctuary cities” ought to be penalized. So should visitors who overstay their visas.
The president’s error has been to regard controlling immigration and welcoming newcomers as polar opposites. But a sensible control of immigration would provide both an economic basis for new immigrants to succeed and a political basis for them to be greeted warmly. And in any case, Republicans who seek their own political health no longer have a choice in the matter.
Those who profit from porous borders took a risk when they broached the topic of comprehensive reform: that the public, long inattentive to the causes of our failing policy, might start taking a closer look. It is going to be much harder for the political class to follow its accustomed course. If the president charts a new one, he will have the support of the public and even some Democrats. If Congress balks, he will have in his hands a winning issue. That would be a nice change of pace, wouldn’t it?