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Listen To Lead: Opponents Often Show The Way

by Paul Donnelly

Immigration reform advocates had to be disappointed in the President’s State of the Union speech whether they favor amnesty or not, despite happy talk offered by any side. In a 51 minute speech President said exactly 91 words on immigration, one 20 word sentence and later, this paragraph:

“Keeping America competitive requires an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values and serves the interests of our economy. Our nation needs orderly and secure borders. To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection. And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty, allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally and reduces smuggling and crime at the border.”

He gave nearly twice as much time to reading a letter from a soldier killed in Iraq, although to be fair immigration got more than other Bush initiatives announced in previous Presidential addresses, e.g., the mission to Mars. 

So the President’s vaunted immigration initiative made it into the laundry list with applause lines that is a State of the Union, but at the level of purely perfunctory.

Clearly, the Bush administration is positioning itself for this year’s impasse between the House, which has passed an enforcement bill that also eliminates a whole category for legal immigration, and the Senate that will take up immigration in a matter of weeks if not days. But government means choosing, which political positioning leaves to others. 

Leadership forces choices.

To be sure, at this stage of legislation, many principals are trying to keep their options open, e.g., Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist. As Senate Leader, Frist has an institutional responsibility to make any Senate action effective: if the Senate passes a guest worker/amnesty deal along the lines of McCain-Kennedy, which at least as of Christmas had the most Senate support, Frist will be in a bind. As a potential Presidential candidate, he knows that the Republican base is passionately against amnesty.

On the Right, the reviews of the President’s approach were not good. LaShawn Barber, a more or less typical restrictionist blogger, responded live: “I’m bitterly disappointed with George Bush for vague and empty platitudes about illegal immigration. He didn’t address the social costs and national security issues surrounding the illegal scourge, nor did he mention anything about the incident that happened at the border last week or offer anything concrete to his pro-enforcement base. Just fluff, slogans, and hot air.”

With a wider readership, National Review’s John Derbyshire called the guest worker proposal the worst idea in the President’s agenda: “"Let's create a vast new category of second-class sub-citizens, preferably by allowing some neighboring country to export its race problem to us. Then, let's give the regulation and registration of these new millions over to a federal government agency that has proved hopelessly incapable of caring out its current, much lesser, responsibilities."

Well before the President pretended, perhaps, to climb out on the guest worker limb, on January 25 House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner’s extensive interview with the Washington Times was blunt: “Amnesty is not negotiable.” So perhaps, in the interests of keeping options open, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform should give up on calling Sensenbrenner and the House majority “un-American.”

What motivates many Republicans, particularly Sensenbrenner, isn’t so much the anti-immigration brush they are tarred with, as the old-fashioned law and order ideal: Sensenbrenner is unimpressed with the ‘almost legal’ argument. Most Republicans, indeed most Americans are offended by the culture of immigration law, characterized by the view that “illegal aliens” are really just “undocumented”, which doesn’t matter because (with the right immigration lawyer) there are so many ways to get at least temporarily valid documents which, when they expire, just starts the process over. That easy and “expert” attitude has been proven all but fatal to the effort to enact the Grand Bargain of a guest worker program and an amnesty (characterized by various terms of art, e.g., “earned authorized status”) that advocates have bet the ranch on throughout Bush’s presidency.

Sensenbrenner’s bill, and his perspective, are considerably more direct: “The guest-worker provision won't work without interior enforcement and verification of Social Security numbers. It's as simple as that," he told the Washington Times. (Disclosure and disclaimer: the author has an interest in worksite verification.)

The House was, after all, established by the Founders to reflect the popular will, and the whole House faces the voters every two years: this year, the Republican majority is acutely conscious that the public is not happy with scandals, war news, and the economy. Members of Congress crave accomplishments to sell their re-election campaigns, while the 91 words in the President’s State of the Union are unmistakeable: on immigration, Congress is on its own. 

So Sensenbrenner is very clear on the Senate’s choices: “This is going to be a question of whether the Senate listens to the people or whether the Senate listens to special-interest groups that want to keep low-paying illegal aliens in the United States for economic reasons.”

It is a fair question to ask if restrictionists are winning, and even more damning, to ask if they are the side that is willing to embrace new ideas. It is downright painful to me to have to acknowledge that no less a hardliner than J.D. Hayworth has picked up on the late Barbara Jordan’s call for a new Americanization movement: “Turning immigrants into Americans didn't happen by accident but was the result of a comprehensive national effort called Americanization,” the conservative Congressman wrote in the January 29th Arizona Republic.

Professor Jordan was passionate that “Americanization” requires an immigration policy that delivers what it promises, which the current set of laws do not, and that the word ought to belong to the unabashedly pro-immigration side: “It is OUR word, and we’re taking it back.”

So how did Hayworth (no offense, Congressman) wind up with it?

As readers know (,0213-donnelly.shtm), immigration advocates do not have a very good track record measured by results when confronting the House. In 1996, to avoid a trade off eliminating citizen’s siblings and the visa lottery categories that would have allocated 150,000 more visas for the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents, the same advocates that now claim to want “comprehensive reform” (by which they mean lots of temporary visas, to be made permanent later) worked hard to defeat genuinely comprehensive reform, when the term meant both legal and illegal immigration. As a conservative in the House who is still a significant player told me at the time, this led directly to the worst excesses of the 1996 law: "Once the legal immigration provisions were eliminated, there was no need to compromise. And nobody asked us to."

Moreover, speaking as someone who was in the room (briefly) during the 1996 House-Senate conference on IIRIRA, it was AILA’s champion, then Senator Spencer Abraham, who insisted on enacting the 3 and 10 year ban over then House Immigration Subcomittee chair Lamar Smith.

So the idea that the House reflects an ‘unAmerican’ view has, shall we say, limited utility. Sensenbrenner speaks for far more Americans than AILA: “And as an exercise of the sovereignty of this country, we are entitled to know which foreigners are here, why they are here, and if they do not have green cards, when they're going home.”

Running the Senate is famously like herding cats: no Senator Majority Leader has ever been nominated and then elected President. (Lyndon Johnson was briefly a candidate for the 1960 nomination, but he was nearly as surprised to be offered the vice presidency as the Kennedys were that he took it.) That the House is not necessarily opposed to a guest worker program that is not an amnesty does not make Frist’s job much easier, in the same way that it hurts more to lose a game you might have won than to play well when outmatched.

The essence of the Kyl-Cornyn approach is those who are now here illegally can only become eligible for guest worker visas after leaving the country, the ‘report to deport’ approach. This is more acceptable to the House: “Negotiating Cornyn-Kyl between the Senate bill and the House bill will be much easier to negotiate than dealing with McCain-Kennedy, because the differences aren't as great as with McCain-Kennedy,” as Sensenbrenner described it.

But it still begs a whole series of questions, particularly for what happens when several million foreigners who are now illegally employed in the U.S. decide not to leave, yet are increasingly unable to get new jobs as worksite verification takes hold.

Moreover, the House bill has placed legal immigration visas on the table, by eliminating the visa lottery. Immigration advocates have had no answer, and it is not at all clear they have a strategy other than the one that so conspicuously failed in 1996: refusing to choose between alternatives you want doesn’t guarantee you won’t get something you don’t.

Only this time, it looks more like the alternatives will be a wide range of tougher enforcement measures, none of them popular with organizations like AILA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (not to mention non-profits and churches). A political strategy that seeks to reject them all, even perhaps effectively eliminating one or two, does not guarantee to deliver anything positive: the Kyl-Cornyn ‘must-leave visa’ without amnesty is a far worse choice for “comprehensive immigration reform” than was available just 10 years ago.

So it is unclear just why immigration advocates are so sure that time is on the side of their long-term strategy.

But there is hope: if immigration advocates were more willing to accept Sensenbrenner’s insistence that legal and illegal reflect our national values, legislation could be written to make real choices. The promise more now/deliver later approach embedded in McCain-Kennedy does not seem like an obvious winner, while the Kyl-Cornyn ‘must leave’ theory is simply not how workers act: Workers are also people, who have families and hopes for the future.

The House bill at least hints at a role for the private sector in enforcing immigration law, notably in worksite verification, that is promising; while the Department of Homeland Security is looking at cooperation with employers in enforcing immigration law. Those approaches go far, but not all the way.

So the missing piece of a legislative compromise may not be how best to disguise amnesty as a guest worker program with a path to earned legalization, but the synergy between civics and family values: to get an enforcement bill without amnesty, Congress could be asked to finally deliver visas to spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents, perhaps combined with a provision that recognizes that the sibling category is essentially a jobs network. The former is the ultimate forward-looking, family values issue (especially for a Republican who wants to reach out to Latinos), while the latter is exactly the kind of serrated edge thinking to cut through the Gordian Knot that ensnarls the Sensenbrenner bill with the Senate alternatives, McCain-Kennedy and Kyl-Cornyn.

Otherwise, the President’s call for “an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values, and serves our interests” seems likely to be tangled in a debate fails our interests, rejects our values and erodes the meaning and purposes of the law.

About The Author

Paul Donnelly writes about immigration and citizenship. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.