Politics & Policy

A Pointless Amnesty

Illegal immigration is a curious subject: It is one of the few domains in which the authorities entrusted with enforcing the law feel obliged to negotiate the most concessionary terms and conditions with those who are breaking it, as though law enforcement were an embarrassing inconvenience. But the rule of law, national security, and economic dynamism are not mere pro forma matters — they are in fact fundamental, a reality lost on our would-be “comprehensive” immigration reformers.

#ad#There are several new immigration proposals in the political pipeline: one from President Obama, one from a bipartisan group in the Senate, and one from a bipartisan group in the House. Each of the proposals contains an amnesty for the dozen million or so illegals already in the country, and none of them contains adequate security provisions. Panicked Republicans are looking for a grand bargain, but they are wrong on both the politics and the policy. Piecemeal reform emphasizing empirical security benchmarks is a far better option.

The terms of the amnesty vary in the different proposals, but is far from obvious that there should be a “path to citizenship” on any terms for illegals at this time. Whether it is desirable to regularize the status of those illegals already here, and on what terms such a regularization might be offered, are questions that can be answered only when the immigration system is under control. That is a matter of political prudence — the experience of the 1980s amnesty suggests that it is easier to offer an amnesty than to secure the border — but also of context: Reviewing and processing the millions of illegals already here would be a vast administrative task, and we will not know how to go about managing it intelligently until we see what the environment looks like after illegal immigration is under control.

Why an amnesty now? Maybe it is only the polls. John McCain, a principal instigator of the Senate group, has made his motives clear: “Elections, elections — the Republican party is losing the support of Hispanic citizens.” His plan apparently is to develop a bipartisan approach to helping Republicans win elections; perhaps Chuck Schumer imagines other outcomes. Senator McCain has not said why he believes that the interests of Hispanic citizens are to be identified with those of non-citizens, why those interests should trump the interests of citizens (including Hispanic citizens) harmed by the lawlessness of our borders, or why a senator with an established record for supporting amnesty could not muster one in three votes from those Hispanic citizens.

Republican immigration reformers with an eye to political reality should begin by appreciating that Latinos are a Democratic constituency. They did not vote for Mitt Romney. They did not vote for John McCain. They did not vote for George W. Bush, and in the election before that they did not vote for George W. Bush again. In 1998, George W. Bush was reelected to the governorship of Texas with 27 percent of the African-American vote — an astonishing number for an unabashed conservative. Bush won 68 percent of the overall vote in that election, carrying 240 out of Texas’s 254 counties. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Gary Mauro.

And, if we are to take Hispanics at their word, conservative attitudes toward illegal immigration are a minor reason for their voting preferences. While many are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls. They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey. Given the growing size of the Hispanic vote, it would help Republicans significantly to lose it by smaller margins than they have recently. But the idea that an amnesty is going to put Latinos squarely in the GOP tent is a fantasy.

#page#No immigration reform deserving the name is possible without first enforcing the law at the border and at the workplace. Conveniently for Republicans, doing so is very popular — two out of three voters support building a border fence. Indeed, even Senator McCain has been known to utter the words “build the danged fence.” There is no reason, political or substantive, for failing to do so. Securing the border is more popular in the polls than is amnesty, even in the Associated Press poll that carefully omits the word “amnesty.”

#ad#About that word. Call it “regularization,” call it a “path to citizenship,” it amounts to precisely the same thing: a decision to set aside the law and to ignore its violation. And therein lies a problem for so-called comprehensive reform: Normalizing the status of the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country, either in toto or in part, would require the development and application of standards for doing so, whether those are relatively narrow (as in the DREAM Act and similar proposals) or broad. Unless we mean to legalize every illegal in the country — including violent felons, gang members, cartel henchmen, and the like — there will be of necessity a system for sorting them out. It is difficult to believe that the same government that failed to enforce the law in the first place will be very scrupulous about standards as it goes about dealing with the consequences of its own incompetence.

It is for that reason that broader reform measures must wait until credible enforcement mechanisms are in place. Those mechanisms include, at a minimum, a physically secured border and mandatory universal use of the E-Verify system, which confirms the legal status of new hires. We agree with Senator Rubio’s view that “we can’t be the only nation in the world that does not enforce its immigration laws. . . . Modernization of the legal immigration system is impossible unless we first secure the border and implement an E-Verify system.” We very much doubt that Senator Rubio will achieve meaningful border security in cooperation with Senators Schumer, Durbin, Menendez, and Bennet. The less-of-the-same version being developed in the House with the support of John Boehner and Paul Ryan almost certainly will suffer from similar defects, since it appears to be based on the same premises. And the other party in this negotiation, President Obama, is even less likely to place enforcement at the center of his immigration agenda; the president has nominally endorsed the Senate reform principles, but the White House already has signaled that it intends to oppose Rubio’s proposal that any amnesty be delayed until the security of the border has been verified.

Rather than getting their heads handed to them in yet another grand bargain, Republicans should push for piecemeal reform through focused, narrow legislation. Senator Rubio’s security measures would be a good place to start. Mandatory and universal use of E-Verify, together with improvements in the program, should have been legislated years ago. We should create a technological system for monitoring and preventing visa overstays, the source of 40 percent of our illegal immigration, to say nothing of the 9/11 plotters — although Congress has already mandated it six separate times in the past 17 years, and it’s still not done. Likewise, Congress passed a law in 2006 mandating that a double-layer border fence be completed; it has not. Which is to say, the executive branch is no more in compliance with the law than the illegals themselves. Congress should demand that the fence be completed in accordance with the law. Other reforms, such as making economic skills rather than the reunification of extended families the main criterion for legal immigration, also deserve consideration. But rather than achieve that, both the president’s program and Rubio’s would expand “guest worker” provisions, as though there were an acute shortage of low-skilled labor in the United States.

Senator Rubio argues that a grand bargain is necessary because an enforcement-only bill could not pass the Senate, while an amnesty-only deal would not pass the House. But he is drawing the wrong conclusion from that stalemate: The better course of action is to fight for sensible enforcement provisions right now and let Democrats explain to an anxious electorate why they insist on holding enforcement of the law hostage to an immediate amnesty. And no grand bargain will take immigration off the table as a political issue: Liberals can always argue for weaker enforcement provisions in the future, easier pathways to legal residency and citizenship, and the like.

Senator Rubio, an exemplary conservative leader, is correct that our immigration system is broken. And he is correct that, at some point, we are going to have to do something about the millions of illegals already here. But he is wrong about how to go about repairing our immigration system, and wrong to think that an amnesty-and-enforcement bill at this time will end up being anything other than the unbuttered side of a half-a-loaf deal. And there is no reason to make a bad deal for fear of losing a Latino vote Republicans never had. 

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

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