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Bitter Sweet Spot: Arlen Specter's Well-intentioned But Disastrous Immigration Compromise

by Tamar Jacoby

There are few things more disappointing in politics than a well-intentioned compromise that falls short, solving nothing and satisfying no one. But that's what appears to be happening in the Senate as Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter tries to build consensus around a proposal for dealing with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. More than two years after President Bush floated the idea of a guest-worker program to connect "willing workers with willing employers" and eliminate the underground economy manned by illegal immigrants, the Judiciary Committee is marking up a bill that combines a variety of proposals.

Politically, it's hard to imagine a more thankless task. Voter frustration is spiraling out of control, and the Judiciary Committee is bitterly divided, with liberals like Sen. Edward Kennedy determined to go one way on immigration, and conservatives like Sen. Jeff Sessions determined to do exactly the opposite. So Sen. Specter deserves credit for trying--and his failure is all the more disheartening. But that doesn't mean there isn't a sweet spot--a politically acceptable answer for the 11 million.

Virtually all policy makers who have thought seriously about immigration agree that we have to do something about these unauthorized workers--not so much for their sake as for ours. Not only is the underground economy an affront to the rule of law, it's also an unacceptable security risk. Here are 11 million people whose real names we don't know, most of whom have never undergone a background check--and the illicit world they inhabit is a perfect staging ground for terrorists. Proposals for dealing with illegal immigrants run the gamut from deportation to blanket amnesty. But the ideas taken most seriously in the Senate all start by requiring them to come forward and register with the government, then prove they are bona fide laborers, not criminals or security threats. At that point, Sens. John Cornyn and Jon Kyl would allow them to work here for five years and then send them home, albeit with the option of returning either as temporary workers or, in some cases, on permanent visas. Sens. Kennedy and John McCain would allow them to earn permanent visas without leaving the U.S.--paying a fine and all back taxes, then taking English classes while they wait their turn behind people applying in the usual way from their home countries.

Enter Sen. Specter in search of a compromise. What drove him was partly doubt that a policy requiring people to return to their home countries would work. Why would anyone sign up for that--as the common taunt goes, "report to deport"? His motives are also political: He wants as strong a majority as he can muster on the committee, including as many Republicans as possible. Otherwise his bill will have no momentum, either on the Senate floor or later, if it passes, when it has to be reconciled with the much tougher bill passed by the House in December.

The problem is that the answer Sen. Specter came up with isn't just impractical; it's un-American, and would prove disastrous for the Republican Party. He calls it the "gold card," and his bill would grant those who earned one, by coming forward and admitting they had done wrong, the right to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. The only catch: Their legal status would be conditional, and as a practical matter they would have no possibility of becoming citizens.

These provisional workers could travel at will, they could change jobs if they wanted and could bring their families to the country to live with them. But unless Congress vastly increased the annual quota of permanent visas (green cards)--a difficult step in today's political climate--most would have to wait 60 or 70 years for this prerequisite of citizenship. The result would be a permanent caste of second-class noncitizen workers, people we trusted to cook our food and tend our children and take care of our elderly relatives--but not to call themselves Americans or participate in politics. They would live in permanent limbo, at risk of deportation if they lost their jobs, hesitant to bargain with employers and unlikely to make the all-important emotional leap that is essential for assimilation.

It is no wonder that the gold card idea is foundering. Hard-liners don't like it--to them, it's just another form of amnesty. Democrats are rubbing their hands in glee--so much for President Bush's effort to make inroads with Latino voters. And many Republicans are balking at the likely campaign ads: spots asserting that throughout our history America has let immigrants become citizens, but now that the newcomers are Hispanic, the GOP is changing the rules. Still, ham-fisted as the gold card is, Sen. Specter isn't entirely wrong. It probably is a good idea to find a compromise that can appeal to a range of Republicans and command a majority strong enough to prevail in a standoff with the House bill. No lawmaker in either chamber wants to leave himself open to the charge that he's voting for amnesty, and the more cover they have from other members, particularly conservative members, the more likely they will be to get behind reform that deals effectively with the 11 million.

The good news is that the Senate may still get there, if not in committee, then before it passes a bill; and the compromise will probably be on the basis of approaches already on the table.

Sens. McCain and Kennedy make one of the best moral arguments: Illegal immigrants should be allowed to earn their way in out of the shadows, demonstrating by their behavior that they want to be part of mainstream America. That's why the McCain-Kennedy bill emphasizes work, taxes, English and waiting in line--a way for immigrants to prove that they want to do the right thing.

Others in Congress and among the public are more concerned with law and order. For them, what's important is that the rules hold in the first place--no special treatment and no dispensations. That's why Sens. Cornyn and Kyl would require the 11 million to leave the U.S. and re-enter the "right way," going through normal, legal channels. Though few immigrants are likely to sign up for a program that would strand them outside the country, this approach might work if the trip were streamlined; that is to say, if immigrants were allowed to come back quickly enough that they didn't lose their jobs or disrupt their families.

Finally, still another group of lawmakers makes the case that circumstances matter since, as is often true in questions of morality, mitigating factors may argue for treating different people differently. That's why Sen. Chuck Hagel, among others, argues for requiring the undocumented to go through the normal process, but then makes exceptions for those who have lived in the country for many years, putting down roots and contributing to the economy.

Which of these answers makes most sense? Perhaps a combination. Part of the goal, after all, is to find a proposal or combination of proposals can command the most votes. Of course, any compromise is risky. It can set you on a slippery slope to an unacceptable answer--in this case, a requirement so stern that few illegal immigrants would come forward to take advantage of it. The new policy has to work, practically as well as politically, and it may be too soon to make concessions; better perhaps to hold them in reserve until later in the Senate debate. But the one answer that plainly doesn't work is the status quo: an underground economy the size of Ohio that makes an ass of the law and endangers our security. There is just too much at stake not to consider every alternative. Sen. Specter got the answer wrong, but he may well have pointed his colleagues in the right direction--searching for the sweet spot, elusive as it may be.

Reproduced with permission from Tamar Jacoby. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, March 15, 2006.

About The Author

Tamar Jacoby is a Senior Fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

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

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