The comprehensivists have one last argument for passing an immigration bill that even they concede is flawed: It is important for Republicans to “pass something that takes immigration off the table“ before the next election. Needless to say, they would not take their own advice if an enforcement-first bill were on the table. But they seem sincerely to believe that after this bill is passed, the party’s divisions will heal.
Dream on. The comprehensivists are right to say that the passionate opponents of amnesty are a “vocal minority“ of Americans; no side of any political debate enlists both the allegiance and the passion of a majority of Americans. But this minority is passionate, large, and a crucial component of any winning Republican coalition. It will interpret passage, not to mention the insults that have come its way in recent weeks, to mean that the party is throwing away its support, and it will not forget.
There will, after all, be constant reminders. If the bill passes, illegal immigrants will almost all soon get their “probationary” legal status. Everyone will be able to see who was right about whether this bill constituted an amnesty. As the months go by, there will be regular reports about the progress of the enforcement measures in the bill: about the inability of the bureaucracy to do real security checks; about the foot-dragging on the border fence; about the drop-off in enforcement actions after the bill was passed; about the new illegal immigrants headed our way.
Immigration has become more than a discrete public-policy issue. Thanks in large part to the comprehensivists’ handling of it, it has become a symbol of everything that many Americans detest about our political class. Both the president and the Congress have very low approval ratings. This bill will send them lower. The number of Americans who tell pollsters that “Washington doesn’t listen to people like me” will go up. As it should.
Michael Barone, a relatively sober-minded comprehensivist, writes that we have entered a period of “open field politics,” like the one we had between 1990 and 1995. Then, it was the deficit that had acquired an outsized political importance as the symbol of an out-of-control government. During that period, the first President Bush’s broken tax pledge destabilized political alignments by diminishing the trust between rulers and ruled. The immigration bill could function the same way today. It is an unpopular bill that violates both the interests and the values of many Americans, and it is being sold with deceit and procedural chicanery.
Republicans who cooperate with it will not take the issue off the table. They will find themselves with fewer and fewer table-mates.