Politics & Policy

This Time It’s Different?

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.)

The Gang of Eight’s “comprehensive” immigration-reform bill contains a number of superficially attractive security mandates: It would require the federal government to have 100 percent “situational awareness” of the border, to catch 90 percent of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas, to establish a tracking system to address the problem of those who enter the country illegally but overstay their visas, etc. So attractive are those goals that we have supported them in the past, on the many occasions upon which the government has promised to achieve them. Disappointingly, Washington keeps failing to deliver on its promises. The unspoken premise of the Gang of Eight bill is: This time it’s different. We are skeptical that this is so. And regardless, there is a great deal in this package that is deeply objectionable.

Unfortunately, this is the same amnesty-first/enforcement-later model that has burned us before. Senator Marco Rubio’s admirers like to compare him to Ronald Reagan, and in this case he resembles the 40th president in putting too much faith in the willingness of Washington to deliver border security in the face of opposition from ethnic-solidarity politics and the cheap-labor lobby.

#ad#Congress mandated the creation of a visa-tracking system, for instance, in 1996. Since then, Congress has on multiple occasions reiterated its demand that the executive branch comply with the law, and the executive branch has on each occasion failed to do so: Bill Clinton’s administration failed to do so, George W. Bush’s administration failed to do so, and Barack Obama’s administration thus far has failed to do so. The system the bill would mandate is even weaker than the system already mandated: It would apply at airports and seaports, but not for land crossings. If we are being asked to believe that this requirement will inspire President Obama to suddenly get religion on the subject of illegal immigration, we say that the evidence is against such a proposition, and that hoping that whoever follows him will do so is simply an act of faith — and though prayer availeth much, it is insufficient grounds for national-security policy.

Consider the standards already at work: Under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, some illegals are given a discretionary grant of relief from deportation after what is supposed to be a rigorous screening process to weed out criminals and national-security threats. But “criminals” has a rather loose definition — you can have a couple of convictions and remain golden in the eyes of Obama’s DHS, so long as you pled any felony charges down to misdemeanors — the result of which is a 99.5 percent approval rate. Presumably, we can expect such “rigorous” standards to prevail throughout this process.

There are other, better provisions. We very strongly support mandating the use of E-Verify or a similar system nationwide in order to ensure that businesses hire only those workers who are legally eligible to be employed in the United States. While there are some procedural challenges associated with creating an effective national E-Verify system, doing so would be the easiest — and probably most effective — way of policing those who enter the United States illegally for economic purposes. (Casual day labor would remain a draw.) Mandating E-Verify is so obvious and sensible a move that it should have been done years ago in a standalone piece of legislation, but that bill was rejected — and those who opposed it, including business interests and farm-state Republicans, will have similar incentives to water down enforcement provisions in any compromise bill that passes Congress. There is nothing in this bill’s compliance-and-sanctions provisions that suggests enforcement would prevail over those who would prefer a looser system.

The full implementation of the three main security measures — national E-Verify, the visa-tracking system, and the 100/90 border-control standard — would have to be ratified before the second stage of the program, a “path to citizenship” for former illegals, would be implemented. If those goals were not met within five years, then a panel of border-state governors and attorneys general would inherit the responsibility and authority for seeing to it that they were met thereafter. Our admiration for the border-state leadership is mixed — Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott are our cup of tea, Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris less so — but at any rate, it is far from clear that the leadership of four states should be entrusted with overseeing a policy that affects the entire country; Virginia and Nevada do not border Mexico, but they have a stake in the illegal-immigration battle, too. Essentially, this bill would give us immediate amnesty in exchange for a DHS plan backed by a border-state panel’s plan to have a plan.

Unhappily, the foregoing observations are among the best things that can be said about this bill. It not only would offer amnesty to the 11 million or so illegals currently in the country but also would readmit many of those who have been deported. The argument for normalizing the status of illegals already resident in the United States has in the main proceeded from the fact that they are already resident in the United States — offering legal status for those who are not living in the United States is indefensible.

Further, the bill would open up the floodgates for unskilled laborers. Many of those unskilled laborers would be brought in under guest-worker programs, which are in and of themselves objectionable. They amount to nothing more than the creation of a caste of second-class workers for the benefit of certain business interests. Congress should be establishing standards oriented toward attracting highly skilled, highly educated workers; this bill would move in the opposite direction, though it would liberalize visa rules for some skilled workers.

#page#The most objectionable feature of the bill is this: While there would no doubt be a great deal of theater involved in the evaluation of the three main security triggers described above, the trigger for the amnesty itself — creating “provisional” legal status for the millions who have entered the country illegally — would be almost entirely meaningless: The Department of Homeland Security would merely have to affirm in writing that it had plans to do something about border security, and that money had been appropriated for doing so. That’s it: no rigorous empirical standard, just the fact of having a plan.

#ad#Which is to say, this is an amnesty-first bill, despite protestations to the contrary. Under its provisions, illegals would be made legal almost immediately. The three-part security test would need to be satisfied only for the embarkation upon the “path to citizenship.” But citizenship is of little value to those who crossed the border illegally for purposes that are mainly economic and whose U.S.-born children will be citizens regardless. In this sense, the compromise combines the worst of both worlds: It offers an immediate amnesty that creates a magnet for even more illegal immigration, and then it leaves those illegals lingering for years as part of a permanent underclass, doing little toward assimilating them into the mainstream of American life.

The Gang of Eight bill is a cobbled-together beast, a truly ugly creature of politics. If Washington were serious about border security and controlling illegal immigration, then Congress would pass a mandatory E-Verify bill, and the executive would enforce it, finish the job of securing the border, and implement visa controls. More broadly, our immigration procedures would be reoriented toward the economic needs of the country rather than other concerns. Once that had been accomplished — once credibility on the issue of border control had been restored — then the time might come to talk about normalizing the status of those who are here illegally. Many of them have been here for decades, and there is no particular urgency in the matter of legalizing them.

It is unlikely that the Gang of Eight bill can be saved through the amendment process — it is structurally defective because the thinking behind it is defective. We have laws, and we have lavishly funded law-enforcement agencies. What we lack is political leadership that will put law enforcement and the national interest above parochial concerns, be they commercial or ethnic. The Gang of Eight bill will not change that. Nor will promises that this time it’s different.

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

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