Politics & Policy

Wrong on Principles

We hope the thinking behind the prospective push on immigration by the House Republican leadership isn’t as sloppy as the statement of “principles” it released at the conference retreat in Cambridge, Md., yesterday. But that seems a wan hope. The principles could be the opening foray in one of the most mystifyingly stupid misadventures in recent congressional history, so perhaps it is appropriate that they were vague, sophomoric, and poorly written.

They spoke of the need to enforce our immigration laws but admitted the difficulty of that, given that Barack Obama currently has the responsibility for executing our nation’s laws. The principles thundered, “We must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.” Maybe it was on the agenda of the House Republican retreat to believe six impossible things before breakfast, because the House is not going to come up with a clever way to bind the president in this manner.

At the end, the document says that nothing can happen unless “specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.” Of course, the architects of the Gang of Eight Senate bill made all the same assurances and then came up with meaningless triggers and insisted on legalizing illegal immigrants before anything else. Paul Ryan has suggested that this could be the House approach, with illegals getting “probationary status” immediately.

The way to do enforcement first would be to pass enforcement bills and leave it at that. If the Senate passes them and the president signs them and subsequently enforces them after they survive legal challenge, well, then you have enforcement first. But everyone knows that none of this would happen — such bills wouldn’t pass the Senate, or even get a vote if Harry Reid had anything to say about it. And even if they did and the president signed them, no one can have any confidence that he would enforce them.

The document says that “there will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws — that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law.” The skeptic will wonder if the wording means that there will be a “non-special” path to citizenship (Ryan indeed says that perhaps some formerly illegal immigrants could get citizenship). Regardless, what is most unfair to law-abiding immigrants and aspiring legal immigrants to this country is that, under an amnesty, illegal immigrants will be able to live and work here legally after defying the rules honored by others.

For some reason, House Republicans have fastened on eventual citizenship as the key issue. It isn’t. What will matter most to the illegal population is getting legalized. The experience of the 1986 amnesty was that most formerly illegal immigrants didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to become citizens. And it is the legalization itself that will act as a magnet to new illegal immigrants. They will take notice that we eventually welcome anyone who manages to come here to live and work in defiance of our laws.

The principles engage in the usual contortions to deny that the amnesty will be an amnesty. The document avers, “These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).” This is all boob bait for Bubbas, a repeat of conditions from the 1986 amnesty and the Gang of Eight bill that are inevitably symbolic, because if they were truly strict standards, they would leave a substantial part of the illegal population without an amnesty.

The document makes a suggestive reference to a temporary-worker program to address “the needs of the agricultural industry, among others,” without, of course, explaining why we need more low-skill workers in the midst of a struggling labor market beset by stagnant wages.

We set out some of our policy objections to all this earlier in the week, and Mark Krikorian has written in detail about an alternative. But we continue to be stunned that House Republicans would even consider anything like this in the current political environment. It is inviting a poisonous intramural political brawl, and the base of the party will — justifiably — feel betrayed if an amnesty actually passes.

The head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Representative Greg Walden (Ore.), has a solution for that. He says that immigration would come up only after primary season: “It’s probably months out, I don’t know. But the point would be most of the primaries would’ve faded by then, anyway. By the time you get to June, most of them are behind you.” We aren’t surprised by the cynicism; we are surprised by its nakedness.

It is time not just to go back to the drawing board on these principles, but to scrap the drawing board altogether.


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