Politics & Policy

Stuck at the Border

Senator John McCain has been accused of flip-flopping on immigration. Supposedly he tacked right during the primaries and now is tacking left. Actually, McCain has been all too consistent.

As he has twice in recent weeks told Hispanic leaders, he remains committed to a “comprehensive immigration reform” that increases enforcement but also creates a “temporary guest worker” program and lets many illegal immigrants become legal residents. His one concession has been a matter of timing. During the primaries he said that the public would need to see enforcement work before it would tolerate the other elements of reform. He did not back off from supporting an amnesty during the primaries (although like other amnesty proponents he hates the word). And he has not backed off from his pledge to pursue enforcement first.

Let us match McCain’s consistency with our own. We believe that the size and nature of our immigrant inflow exacerbates our social problems without providing much of an economic payoff. The “comprehensive reform” we favor would involve fewer, more diverse, and more highly skilled immigrants, a much higher proportion of whom would come here legally. Accordingly, we agree with McCain on increased enforcement and disagree with him on the rest. There is no pressing national need to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” in which they have chosen to live. Doing so, especially under present circumstances, would invite more illegal immigrants to come here in the future.

Senator McCain is highly unlikely to change his mind about immigration. If so, then the divide between most conservatives and the senator on this issue is unbridgeable. At some point, he will push for legislation that we will be bound to oppose. This disagreement, of course, need not preclude us from cooperating on the many issues where we do agree — which includes aspects of immigration policy.

McCain’s enforcement-first promise implies that he will take up comprehensive reform in pieces. First Washington will prove that it will enforce the immigration laws; then, the public mollified, it will pass legislation to legalize illegals and authorize guest workers. We would stand with President McCain on the first bill. On the second, we would oppose him.

And we think we would have a pretty good shot at winning. After all, opponents of amnesty have won two battles over the issue in a row, in 2006 and 2007, even though the president, a lot of corporate lobbies, and most of the leadership of both parties wanted it. If McCain proceeds as he says he will, we will have an additional advantage. In the previous battles, advocates of amnesty have held enforcement hostage to it. With the issues decoupled, there will be little left for the public to like in that second bill.

So we vastly prefer McCain’s enforcement-first approach to Obama’s version of comprehensive reform: not because they differ in principle — they do not — but because under McCain amnesty would have to stand, or more likely fall, on its own merits.

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