The Corner

Gang of Eight vs. Obama: Trivial Differences on Immigration

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to see at least a shadow of a good-cop/bad-cop routine in the reaction of the Gang of Eight to President Obama’s leaked blueprint for “comprehensive immigration reform.” Obama’s plan differs in largely trivial ways from the gang of Eight’s proposal — it would allow illegal immigrants to apply for permanent-residence status after eight years on probationary status, whereas the Gang of Eight’s proposal makes the transition from probationary status to permanent-residence status conditional on a yet-to-be-named commission certifying that the border is secure. That distinction is all but irrelevant in the practical realm. Both proposals send the message to intending illegal aliens that the U.S. is still doling out amnesties — and the most important amnesty is the immediate probationary status in both plans that immunizes illegal aliens already here from enforcement (and that grants them legal presence inside the country ahead of intending legal immigrants still waiting outside the country for permission to enter). The chance that under either the Gang of Eight or Obama’s plan an illegal alien on probationary status will lose that status, short of committing a heinous crime, is zero. However much it might hurt Americans’ feelings, American citizenship is not a high priority for Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, who have historically had a very low rate of naturalization. Only Proposition 187 in California increased Hispanics’ naturalization rate. And the difference between probationary status and permanent residency under the Gang of Eight’s proposal does not appear to be particularly significant, either. 

Nevertheless, once there is wholesale granting of probationary status under the Gang of Eight’s plan, the pressure from the advocates to declare the border secure in order to convert the probationers to full-fledged legal status will be irresistible. Indeed, the declaration and the conversion will likely occur in well under the eight years that Obama’s plan sets out. But in any case all of these details within the two plans and the minute distinctions between them are utterly irrelevant to intending illegal aliens — the only thing that matters is the removal of illegal status. 

Yet with Obama’s plan now out there, Senator Marco Rubio and other Republicans in the bipartisan group get to position themselves as immigration hawks. Rubio denounced the plan as “half-baked and seriously flawed,” and said that it would “actually make our immigration problems worse.” It is not at all clear that the same can’t be said for the Gang of Eight’s proposal. But now that latter proposal can be packaged as the tough-on-enforcement version of comprehensive immigration reform, and who could oppose that?

Had the Gang of Eight denounced Obama’s plan for not refocusing the legal system on admitting high-skilled immigrants, rather than family reunification, they might have had a meaningful complaint. But there is no such refocusing in the Gang of Eight proposal either. 

The other important message that both plans send out is to illegal-alien advocates in the U.S.: protest works. Since the 2006 spring amnesty protests, the delegitimizing of enforcement has only gathered steam. Do not expect enforcement to become relegitimized after the next amnesty; rather, it will become even more stigmatized as unfair to its targets and a separator of families.  

Heather Mac Donald — Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops

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