January 10, 2006
Bush Must Talk Sense To Republicans On Immigration

By Mort Kondracke

Much as he reached out last week to former secretaries of State and Defense on Iraq policy, President Bush should call in his radio talk-show supporters for a frank chat about immigration.

Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt and Laura Ingraham certainly aren't as distinguished as ex-Secretaries James Baker, Madeleine Albright and Robert McNamara, but they are the ones fueling Republican uproar over illegal immigration.

Yet they support Bush ardently and they ought to be open to an argument from him - an argument that happens to be correct - that the only way the United States is truly going to solve the problem of illegal immigration is with a comprehensive plan, like his, that not only controls the borders but creates legal means for immigrants to work.

Bush also needs to make the argument to GOP House Members, who voted overwhelmingly last month for an enforcement-only bill that beefed up border security, made it a felony to be an illegal alien and authorized building a fence along some of the border with Mexico.

Bowing to pressure engendered by the talk-show claque, Bush tilted right himself, delivering a pair of speeches that emphasized stricter enforcement, but downplayed his traditional support for work permits and declaring opposition to "amnesty" for illegals.

House Members went home able to tell angry constituents that they'd cracked down on immigration, but the truth is they've done nothing. No bill has passed the Senate and what's in the offing is a stalemate - unless Bush can rally his party to do something sensible.

If it's not delayed by hearings on National Security Agency wiretaps on top of confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito, the Senate Judiciary Committee is supposed to take up immigration reform this month.

Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has drafted a comprehensive bill that includes beefed-up border controls, stricter internal employment checks and a work permit system to allow new immigrants and illegals to have legal employment in the U.S. for up to six years.

It's a far better approach than the House bill, but business and pro-immigrant groups are concerned that the bill will contain a provision sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would require workers to return to their home countries after their six-year work visas expire.

That would disrupt employment patterns and family life and discourage illegals from reporting for work permits in the first place.

A far better solution would be for the Senate to adopt "earned legalization" provisions of the bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), which would allow illegals and temporary workers to stay in the U.S. if they pay fines, back taxes, learn English and pass through a clearance procedure.

Immigration restrictionists denounce the McCain-Kennedy provision as "amnesty," but it's really a recognition of reality: There are 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., and it would be far more efficient to concentrate law enforcement resources on finding and expelling criminals among them than trying to corral them all. If the Senate passes a comprehensive measure, with or without McCain-Kennedy, there's a danger that it would be rejected in the House as too lenient. And the House's enforcement-only bill would be filibustered in the Senate.

It's up to Bush to avoid stalemate - and there are lots of good arguments he can use to pull his party together. On the merits, he can show that enforcement-only immigration policy simply doesn't work. According to the Migration Policy Institute, overall spending on immigration enforcement increased from $1 billion in 1985 to $4.9 billion in 2002. Appropriations for the border patrol went up tenfold, and the number of agents rose eightfold. Yet, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. has averaged from 480,000 to 660,000 and a total of 9 million have entered since 1990.

The National Immigration Forum, which advocates both stronger enforcement and earned legalization, estimates that the average cost of making an arrest at the border has increased from $300 in 1992 to $1,700 in 2002.

Talk-show hosts are right to argue that illegal immigration is out of control and that terrorists can smuggle their way into the U.S. along with workers. To the extent possible, the border should be sealed, and Bush should vow to do it.

But he also should make the obvious case to Republicans - and get help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in doing so - that there aren't enough U.S. workers to fill the jobs immigrants generally take.

He also should make the political case that his efforts to woo Hispanic voters into the GOP - which has been successful when backed by welcoming rhetoric - will suffer if the party develops an exclusionist reputation.

And he can cite evidence from 2005 elections in Virginia and California: Anti-immigrant campaigns don't win. In Southern California, Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the much-publicized Minutemen Project, a civilian border-control group, got only 25 percent of the vote and finished third in a special election to succeed to succeed Rep. Christopher Cox (R), who now heads the Securities and Exchange Commission.

And former Virginia Attorney Gen. Jerry Kilgore (R) lost to Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) despite ads that attacked Kaine's support for a day-labor site in suburban Herndon and education for immigrant children. The ad concluded, "What part of illegal doesn't Kaine understand?"

There's a foreign policy angle to be argued. Even though Mexico's current president, Vicente Fox, has bolstered the anti-immigrant cause with his loud complaints about U.S. policy, the United States has every interest in encouraging the election next year of Felipe Calderon, the Harvard alumnus who is the nominee of Fox's PAN party.

Currently, the 2006 favorite is former Mexico City Mayor Andres Lopez Obrador of the left-wing PRD party - someone who's likely to get financial assistance from Venezuela's radical President Hugo Chavez and, if elected, could pursue economic policies that cause a surge in illegal immigration.

Finally, there's evidence in a Tarrance Group poll that a combination of tough border enforcement and McCain-style earned legalization is popular. That plan beat an enforcement-and-deportation plan 58 percent to 33 percent - and that was just among likely Republican voters.

Doing the right thing is win-win for Republicans, if only Bush can convince Sean Hannity.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

Author Archive
Email Author
Print This Article
Send Article To a Friend

More Commentary

Curing Poverty or Using Poverty? - Thomas Sowell
Osama: Quiet as a Corpse - Peter Brookes
For House GOP, A Belated Evolution - George Will

More from Mort Kondracke
Congress Should Give Bush Power to Tap Terrorists
Bush Ending 2005 in Upturn
Despite Woes, GOP Confident for 2006