‘Our self-deportation days are behind us,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) declared as he walked off the Senate floor last week, after the Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill had cleared its final hurdle before passage.
Graham’s comment was in reference to Mitt Romney’s tin-eared remark on immigration reform during the 2012 presidential race, in which Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Proponents of the Gang of Eight bill from both parties often argue that the GOP should back the legislation in order to improve its tainted reputation among Hispanic voters, and thus to avoid becoming “a minority party for a generation,” in the words of Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.). Helping to pass a bill that provides immediate legal status, and ultimately citizenship, to millions of illegal immigrants is an essential step Republicans must take if they don’t want to be tarred as anti-immigrant bigots, the bill’s proponents claim. End the debate, solve the problem, deny the opposition those talking points, and Republicans can start winning again.
Putting aside the question of whether Republicans really need more Hispanic votes, and of whether supporting the Gang of Eight bill would actually help them win those votes — the evidence is unclear, at best — Republicans are kidding themselves if they think passing immigration reform will mute efforts to cast them as cold-hearted Hispanic-haters. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.
The Gang of Eight bill would allow illegal immigrants to apply for legal status almost immediately. Critics have argued that this is a flawed approach to reform because, once the legal status is granted, Democrats will seek to renegotiate every other aspect of the proposal. Or the Obama administration could simply ignore the bill’s major provisions, just as it continues to ignore current immigration law. As the Washington Post reported in May, President Obama has reassured skeptical liberals by telling them his administration will “revisit” their concerns with the bill — after it becomes law.
If Democrats are so inclined — and history would suggest that they are — they will have ample opportunity to smear Republicans as they seek to roll back major provisions in the Gang of Eight bill, should it become law.
The ten-year wait for a green card? Too long. The American Dream should not be deferred!
The roughly $2,000 in proposed fees and fines? Too punitive. Repeal the GOP tax on immigration!
Employer verification? Too intrusive. Racial profiling today, national ID tomorrow! (Such opposition could well be bipartisan.)
Any effort to make the border more secure? Excessive, fascist, and too expensive. Build bridges, not fences! Say no to the GOP border splurge!
And the prohibitions against provisional-status immigrants’ receiving federal benefits, including Obamacare? Even worse than “self-deportation.” Democrats oppose second-class citizenship!
And so on. There is also the question of what happens to the (potentially) millions of illegal immigrants who will not qualify for legal status or, eventually, citizenship. One doubts that Republicans would be willing to support a mass deportation.
Of course, Congress wouldn’t necessarily have to roll back some of these provisions; the secretary of homeland security would be given considerable authority to enforce the law as she sees fit. If Republicans intend to oppose the secretary’s efforts, they should expect to encounter the same political attacks that some are hoping to avoid by supporting the Gang of Eight.
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which is often cited as a legislative failure — it offered immediate legalization, along with a promise of enforcement that was never fulfilled — was supposed to impose strict sanctions on employers for hiring illegal immigrants, and this central provision that came under attack almost immediately.
In 1990, the National Council of La Raza released a report arguing that Congress had a “moral obligation” to repeal the “unconscionable” employer sanctions, which were “inherently discriminatory” and “infringe[d] upon the civil rights of Americans.” The report also called for “a second legalization program” aimed at the illegal immigrants who came to the United States after the enactment of the 1986 law. Its author, Cecelia Muñoz, is the Obama administration’s top immigration adviser; she was recently named director of the Domestic Policy Council.
Shortly thereafter, the leading members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.), began drafting legislation to repeal the ban on hiring illegals, though it was never enacted. There was no need, really, because the sanctions were rarely enforced. In 2004, just three employers were fined for hiring illegals.
Gang of Eight ringleader Chuck Schumer, then a congressman, also had a role in undermining the provisions of the 1986 immigration reform. Despite voting for legislation that same year that would have required illegal immigrants that were legalized under IRCA to pay up to three years of “back taxes” after IRCA was enacted, Schumer wrote a letter urging the Treasury Department to “immediately” exempt newly legalized residents from that requirement — an objective that was ultimately achieved with the passage of tax legislation in 1988.
Republicans may look to the welfare-reform battles of the mid 1990s for lessons on the political wisdom of trying to bar immigrants from receiving federal benefits, as the Gang of Eight bill purports to do. The 1996 welfare-reform law conditioned eligibility for benefits on citizenship, as opposed to legal status, meaning that most legal immigrants were to be treated the same as illegal immigrants.
The provision did not last long. On a bipartisan basis, Congress, the Clinton administration, and later the George W. Bush administration steadily rolled back the restrictions. In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, welfare-reform architect Newt Gingrich praised Bush’s efforts to restore food-stamp eligibility to immigrants, conceding that the original provision was “wrong” and “went too far.” Will today’s Republicans show a similar resolve?
This issue of Obamacare eligibility is sure to be one of the most contentious if the Gang of Eight bill becomes law, not least because Obamacare is extremely popular among Hispanics. As it stands, the bill could create an incentive for employers to hire newly legalized immigrants over American workers; it would allow them to avoid fines of up to $3,000 per employee for businesses that do not provide qualifying health insurance under the law, although some Gang of Eight backers appear utterly clueless about this potential point of conflict.
“We’ve played this game before,” says Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies. “There are so many opportunities for Democrats to beat up on Republicans after this bill passes that no Republican should vote for it thinking it will be some kind of peace-making bill.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.