It's Not Going To Happen
Most observers think if comprehensive immigration reform is going to
before the 2006 elections, it will happen this fall or early next year
(see ILW.COM, August 11th, "Major Change Coming"). The closer a legislative
debate gets to next year’s campaigns, so the calculus goes, the less
a legislative compromise will be. This puts the Republican leadership
the Bush administration onto the pointy parts of a choice that makes
significant change in immigration law once again less likely than it
appears – and good immigration reform nearly impossible.
Put it this way: when both sides want an issue to run on more than a
to enact, nothing will happen. And if both sides think what can pass
worse than what they’ve got, nothing will pass.
The politics haven’t changed. The Republican majority in both the
Senate, and their base in states and Congressional districts
simply does not favor increases in America’s foreign-born population.
Bush administration’s famous commitment to a guest worker deal with
has not produced anything that might even be called a plan, much less
legislation, and their favored political strategy of simply clearing
for alternative proposals like McCain-Kennedy and Kyle-Cornyn has
the Republican Party without unifying Democrats on an actual Democratic
alternative to the Republicans’ anti-Ellis Island model.
The Republican party, particularly in the House, does not want
legislation. That is, if a bill cannot get a solid majority within the
Republican caucus, it will depend on Democratic votes to pass, and thus
defeat for the Republican leadership. So it will not come to a floor
Of the 232 Republicans in the House, more than 60 are members of the
restrictionist Immigration Reform Caucus. Without them, the House
leadership is unlikely to move a bill at all. Take those 60 plus votes
the Republican Caucus, and you’re left with 170, which is not enough.
True, they are not categorically opposed to "earned legalization" –
that is a limited opportunity, because not serving on the relevant
committees they won’t focus on anything but what their leadership asks
to do, as the issues are framed for them.
Republicans and the echo chamber advocates have asked them to focus on
bogus concept of the ‘economics’ of immigration, which has no substance,
shaky constituency, and represents a failed political strategy.
Remember: the whole purpose of a partisan Republican leadership in the
is not to force members to face re-election having passed legislation
depended on the Democrats to enact.
Scandal-plagued House Republican Leader Tom DeLay must consider the
immigration issue a Godsend. He has taken a hard line, precisely
framing the issue as border controls and anti-terror measures enables
play to his largely restrictionist base. This is one of the few issues
breaking their way – Iraq is not, the economy is not. The Republican
majority in the House is vulnerable next year. But the shift of even
Democratic Governors like Bill Richardson, the great Hispanic hope (who
declared New Mexico in a state of emergency and has met with
shows that the echo chamber may have radically misjudged the political
Speaker Hastert poses a different question. He may be persuaded that a
worker program can work, despite all the evidence. He has also won
close votes lately, e.g., CAFTA. So it is possible, if improbable,
Hastert will over-rule DeLay and force a vote on an immigration bill:
said it will be a priority. But he does not have a White House bill to
So it is very difficult to see the circumstances in which any of this
happens before next spring, when the calendar may simply shelve the
shebang. The reason is summed up in three dates: September 11, 2001;
2005, the dates of terrorist attacks in the United States and Britain;
November 8th, 2006, the election.
In the current political climate, dominated by the war on terrorism,
restrictionists hold the veto on immigration legislation. They are the
ones – with close to 200 votes in the House, and perhaps 40 in the
who reasonably expect to be in a better negotiating position in 18
than they are in right now. Moreover – as Richardson shows –
Republicans see Democrats coming toward them: why would restrictionists
away from their goals? There is no example of someone losing because
too identified with restrictionists, comparable to Spencer Abraham,
lost his re-election despite being AILA’s darling. (The most famous
counter-example, Pete Wilson of California, didn’t lose an election, he
simply didn’t manage to ride anti-immigration to the Presidency.
or not, most members of Congress focus on their own elections, not the
ILW.COM readers may not like that assessment – but there isn’t much
that a terrorist incident, even one that ends in an arrest rather than
killings, would help restrictionists more than those who favor ‘open
The current mess may finally be the moment when advocates for the Ellis
Island model recognize that their strategy has been wrong for quite
time, framing the issues in a way that fails.
Since George Bush became President in January 2001, immigration
have insisted that finally there is a Republican President who is on
side, and it was just a matter of time before the details of what Frank
Sharry, Dimitri Papademetriou and others called "the grand bargain"
worked out. The echo chamber was confident – there would be a guest
program, and some way for illegal residents to get green cards, and –
as an afterthought – something for the families who are outlawed and
and the slow grinding that AILA and the ACLU has been doing on the
connection between anti-terror measures and immigration policy would
eventually pay off.
Except – immigration advocates, like the Democratic Party as a whole,
continue to think in terms of actually enacting legislation, rather
standing up for principles – like the Ellis Island model, the direct
connection between immigration and citizenship (see The New Republic article dated June 19, 2000 by John B. Judis, http://www.tnr.com/061900/judis061900.html- registration required); and the sanctity of
But successful politics depends on framing issues to move voters –
this approach has utterly failed to do: "Extend 245(i)!" is not much of
battle cry to move masses. What passes for ‘new thinking’ among
like the discovery that deporting 10 million illegal aliens would
expensive – is nearly fatal framing, placing Democrats on the side of
law does not matter’ during a war on terrorists.
Front-page stories, Congressional testimony, editorials and Op-Eds
the error: "The economic arguments [for immigration reform] are very
and have not been laid out for people to consider," lobbyist Terry Holt
the Wall Street Journal on August 16th.
But they have been laid out, and they are not strong. (Not that the
the echo chamber know this.) The National Academy of Sciences
comprehensively examined the economics of immigration in 1997, and
authoritatively concluded it ain’t much of an argument: the total value
added to the U.S. economy because of immigration might be as much as
billion a year, but no higher – in a trillion dollar economy. That’s
equivalent of picking a dime off the sidewalk when you have three
two tens, three fives, four singles and a fistful of change in your
it’s frugal, but hardly lucrative.
The far stronger arguments necessary for a more effective political
based on easily understood (and, incidentally, not bogus) values like
and citizenship, have been utterly neglected because they are not
with a guest worker approach
The economic arguments for immigration "reform" are all calls for labor
subsidies – for a government-supplied workforce in favored industries,
information technology with the H-1B to agriculture with the AgJobs
and everybody knows it. That’s the rock on which the Republican
breaking up, steered to disaster by simple dishonesty.
Restrictionists and libertarians alike – the contradictory pillars of
Republican immigration advocacy --- do not want to accept the
sieve-like enforcement mechanisms and open subsidies of a guest worker
program that seems inspired more by Rube Goldberg than Milton Friedman.
insisting on that approach has limited persuasive power over the
base – which may have been reached.
Yet immigration advocates continue to delude themselves that on behalf
lame duck President with low favorable ratings and a depressing war to
fight, the Republican Party will stiff its base – business, no less
middle class and social values voters – for a scheme about which
no knowledgeable person can keep a straight face while insisting "it
A small flock of little birds tells me of recent White House meetings,
of a series in which key players in various constituencies have been
up to talk about immigration reform. Having no specific proposal to
White House staff listens at these meetings – and they are not hearing
The premise of a guest worker program, after all, vividly reflected in
Kyle-Cornyn proposal of a ‘must-leave’ visa, is that the workers are
temporary and WILL leave. Politically, to enact legislation that would
that depends on the support of employers who want temporary workers.
But in these White House meetings, employers from roofers to software
saying to the White House that they do not want their foreign-born
to leave, and do not understand the incoherent message the White House
trying to craft: Pro-guest worker is NOT pro-business.
So much for the primary Bush strategy. What of the secondary ones?
As even Milton Friedman points out http://www.ilw.com/articles/2002,0816-Donnelly.shtm
guest worker programs are highly regulated subsidies and the opposite
free market. Despite a trickle of newspaper stories (two in the
Post within a week) it’s not pro-family to enact guest worker
nor even amnesty, necessarily.
So religious groups are being urged to support a guest worker bill that
guaranteed to make the anti-family provisions of immigration law worse
in fact the amnesty did between 1986-1991, when 3 million amnesty
resulted in a million person backlog in the nuclear family category
five years later), not better. The confused support that humanitarian
groups bring to needlessly complex compromise legislation gets it so
but no farther.
It may bring it far enough for the Senate to act first, because if the
moves, the issues will be far more focused on border security and
against terrorism, and the requirement for illegal residents to leave
country. Framing the issues the way the Senate wants moves it along – a
The best guess is that there are between 50 and 55 votes for
in the Senate, but not 60. This means that there will be at least one
vote on an amendment along the lines of Kyle-Cornyn, but that – if the
House backs McCain-Kennedy – the echo chamber’s favored legislation
There is not a Republican majority in the House for anything similar to
guest worker program with earned legalization that means, in fact, it
about guest workers at all. There is a very large Republican minority –
perhaps more – for the opposite approach.
That means that either nothing will pass the House, and there will be
legislation, or that the House and Senate will conference on widely
incompatible bills. It also means a matter of months will pass, taking
into 2006 before the real nut-cutting moment arrives.
In the last two major House-Senate conferences on immigration
the echo chamber advocates got taken to the cleaners and stuck with the
bill: in 1990, the House passed and the Senate rejected making the
and minor children of legal permanent residents into an unlimited
When the House leadership went to the groups looking for support for
priority, they yawned. Despite the pro-family provisions of the
McCain-Kennedy bill, this is not a moment to recapture the opportunity
15 years ago – and the political decisions made in the meantime have
that opportunity further away: the very people who are now trying to
families are, too, important, were saying this was not a problem just a
During debate over the 1996 reforms, Senators like Mike DeWine of Ohio
stated flatly that providing green cards to spouses and kids was a
amnesty, and he helped an overwhelming Senate majority to defeat it –
because that was how it was framed. Key players like Jeanne
AILA agreed with that result, minimizing the atrocity: Butterfield
then 1.1 million backlog of nuclear family members was merely the
echo", and would fade over time.
She was wrong. Scholars like Jeff Passell and David Martin have
what ILW.COM readers knew two years ago: the 2A backlog is at least 50%
higher than it was in 1996.
Worse, it was AILA’s champion at the time, Senator Spencer Abraham, who
prevailed in the conference over Lamar Smith (who was opposed) to get
and 10 year bar into the final legislation.
This record should not fill folks with confidence in the strategic
brilliance of ‘pro-immigration’ lobbyists.
In simplest terms, the basic dispute in this subsidy debate is whether
illegal residents must leave to get a temporary work visa (as in
Kyle-Cornyn) or not (McCain-Kennedy). That doesn’t lend itself to
compromise – and it masks the error in the assessment voiced by Tamar
of the conservative Manhattan Institute, that "enforcement alone can’t
The strategy that aims at replacing illegal immigration with a guest
program as a way to increase green cards for families, and will accept
enforcement measures as a price for that bargain, will fail.
it is simple: a guest worker program is a highly regulated legal labor
market, and so cannot compete with an unregulated illegal one. Guest
don’t replace illegal ones; guest workers BECOME illegal workers.
Politically, there is an extra step: for example, White House meetings
the landscaping and roofing industries. They want both to support a
worker program. Both depend on illegal workers. Both want some way to
legalize their workers. Both are happy to have some complex regulatory
scheme that will suppress their workers’ wages – but here, they part
company. Working on a roof pays more than working on the lawn. Roofers
permanent workers while landscapers want a permanent supply of
workers. The only way for a guest worker program to work for
enforcement to keep their employees from taking higher paying jobs on
That means either the ‘earned legalization’ approach that everyone
understands is amnesty by another name, by which illegal workers became
legal permanent residents, or actual enforcement of employer sanctions.
Take your choice.
Which brings us to the current White House strategy, of selling a
they haven’t made yet through a group called Americans for Border and
Economic Security. That relies on people like Dick Armey, the former
of the House leadership who has made common cause with the ACLU on
liberties issues arising out of 9-11. Armey, a famous
anti-regulation advocate, may be able to argue with a straight face
guest worker subsidy is the free market solution, but people who
meet payrolls know better: that’s the message the White House has
consistently gotten from its meetings with employers.
And you will ice skate down the Rio Grande before Dick Armey and the
libertarian wing of the Republican Party fights with the business
actually enforce employer sanctions.
So there is simply no political payoff for forcing these compromises on
Republican Party, especially in the House. Business groups don’t want
they’re being offered, and the Bush administration hasn’t actually
out what it is they’re offering, anyway.
Nor is the actual legislative dynamic promising.
In 1990, the essential House-Senate compromise was to accept business
provisions (like the "perfection" of the H-1B program), rather than
unlimited nuclear family immigration.
In 1996, the echo chamber advocates killed legal immigration reforms
would have provided green cards for all 1.1 million nuclear family
in the 2A backlog, arguing that this most egregious anti-marriage
of U.S. law would fade away. It has increased, to at least 1.5 million.
When the harshest measures of IIRIRA were passed, no one spoke up to
compromise them – because, without legal immigration provisions on the
table, there was nothing to bargain with.
In the long march to H-1B increases that were the only immigration show
the Hill before 9-11, the echo chamber advocates floundered around
deciding that making 245(i) permanent would be worth their support for
high tech bracero program: but the H-1B hike happened and 245(i) did
9-11 did not improve this situation any, nor did it change the basic –
continuously failed – echo chamber approach to immigration politics.
A prediction: the McCain-Kennedy bill will pass the Senate essentially
intact before the House acts, because the Bush administration cannot
the House exactly what it wants. If the Senate bill loses any
provision, it will be the family numbers, which at least should cost it
support of humanitarian groups; if it gains any enforcement mechanism,
will be the Kyle-Cornyn requirement to leave the country, proving that
workers are actually ‘temporary’. That will cost it business support,
was shaky anyway.
A further prediction: the House will take up Kyle-Cornyn, or a
bill cobbled together by DeLay from those guest worker provisions and
offered by the restrictionist Immigration Reform Caucus. The goal will
frame the issue clearly as border enforcement and anti-terrorism
with worker protections, because that is a way for Republican House
to protect their base in 2006. They will want an issue, rather than a
at least, any law the Senate will be ready to accept.
If that bill cannot pass the House with a solid Republican majority –
185 of the 232 Republican votes, which means at least a third to half
restrictionist caucus – the leadership will not bring it to a vote.
So if that bill passes the House, there will be a conference with
different provisions to sort out with the Senate. The key House player
the table will be Judiciary Chair George Sensennbrenner (R-Wi), and the
House leader will be Speaker Hastert – who will have a primarily
agenda. There will be two things he does NOT want: to have the
his 232 Republicans nationalized. Nationalizing the House elections is
gave Republicans the majority in 1994. Outside of border districts
are overwhelmingly restrictionist for Republicans), immigration is the
ultimate national issue, and both action and failing to act will hurt
Republicans if it causes them to be seen as the party in control of
The other thing House Republicans must avoid, for the same reason, is
have to pass an immigration bill with Democratic votes.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the key Senate player, then,
Ted Kennedy: DeLay will not want to take anything to the House floor
Kennedy will be able to support, much less claim credit for. That’s
Republican tipping point. If it’s the McCain-KENNEDY bill, the House
The Democratic tipping point may come when – if – they realize that
they don’t actually want to keep helping enact flawed bills, either. Richardson
others beginning to recognize that there is a politically legitimate
about the utter failure of constant tinkering with our failed
system may finally be a sign that Democrats will get serious about a
alternative – not intended to pass as legislation (because the
control the government) but to frame the issue.
But that won’t happen in this legislative round, and not ever with
Kennedy as the Democrats’ leader on these issues. Yet without that
Democratic alternative to the Republican guest worker model, something
will have to change for any significant immigration reform to pass. So
You read it here first.
About The Author
Paul Donnelly writes about immigration and citizenship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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