Ramesh, I think your answer actually proves Kaus’s main point (“Does National Review really endorse this plan, or only think McCain should endorse this plan?”), as well as the points I raised in questioning the editorial.
You say your ”position is consistent with the editorial.” That is not surprising: you are supporting Sen. McCain. It makes perfect sense for you, having decided that the total McCain package is the best thing (among the available alternatives) for the country, to try to veer McCain toward a proposal that, however imperfect, is superior to his prior immigration position. It can only make him more attractive as a candidate.
The problem, though, is that an editorial represents the corporate position of the magazine, not of McCain supporters. In this case, it is not a prudent position for National Review to take. NR has not endorsed McCain and NR does not endorse the Isakson plan. Indeed, the editorial, like your post, suggested important ways in which the Isakson plan is wanting (although I don’t think either the editorial or you go far enough on that score). What is the point of NR trying to steer a candidate it hasn’t endorsed toward a plan it doesn’t support?
After all, if McCain took NR’s advice, it could help McCain prevail over a candidate NR might find preferable. Similarly, as McCain’s electoral position became stronger, that would make less likely the prospects of an immigration plan superior to Isakson that NR might otherwise support. In either case, that’s not in NR’s interests.
I’d also respectfully suggest that your argument falls victim to an often-seen Washington-centric failing: The assumption that laws will be enforced just as Congress has written them. Laws are almost never enforced as written. They form an outer limit, well within which real enforcement occurs. The narcotics laws, for example, literally prohibit possession and small-scale distribution. For instance, each person who passes a marijuana joint to the next person technically commits a felony violation punishable by up to 20 years in prison. As everyone knows, however, such cases are never brought — if they were, police would have time for nothing else. Actual enforcement is targeted at big distributors. People who merely possess drugs for personal use well know they are substantially safe no matter what the statutes say.
The problem with any comprehensive immigration reform that includes an amnesty — no matter how tightly you draft the triggers and certifications — is that it conveys the message that we are willing to accept some unquantified degree of violation of our laws. It conveys that some amount of law-breakers will eventually get pride of place over those who have tried to immigrate legally. Perhaps worst of all, it conveys the conceit that it is somehow our obligation to legitimize the presence of some unknown number of violators — notwithstanding that they voluntarily chose to come here and live as outlaws.
Those assumptions, implicit in any amnesty proposal, including Isakson’s, will inevitably affect how the law is enforced. The immigration authorities are not going to be as aggressive as they might otherwise be if they are told from the start that we are willing to abide and ultimately reward some law-breaking. Including the amnesty, rather than just providing for better enforcement, suggests a lack of seriousness about enforcement — that it’s just something to which we’re reluctantly agreeing as the price of getting amnesty enacted. That will inexorably decrease the incentive toward aggressive enforcement.
We have sparse resources chasing lots of crime, and since you can’t arrest everyone, cops have to make choices. A common choice is that they’d prefer not to hassle people for doing something that may be legal tomorrow (in this instance, under an amnesty law’s express terms). Naturally, that attitude would increase the incentive for illegals to stay here. A law creating such incentives would be foolish even if we were writing on a clean slate; but as we are writing, instead, on a decades-long record of no credible immigration enforcement, it’s just a terrible idea. Sadly, it’s a terrible idea I think (as you and NR corporately seem to assume) congress will eventually codify. But that’s not a foregone conclusion, there’s a lot of public support for a more commonsense resolution, and so it would be better for now to keep opposing amnesty than to signal the terms for compromise on a bad policy.