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Better Off Dead

I've been thinking for a while that killing an immigration compromise was close to a no-brainer for House Republicans. Why? To start with, eighty-five percent of Congressional Republicans voted in favor of some version of an "enforcement-first" type approach. The base of the party clearly supports enforcement-first, so just as a purely political matter, negotiating a compromise with the White House, a small minority of Republicans, and a whole lot of eager Democrats that included some sort of amnesty would be like shooting the GOP base in the stomach - or worse.

Furthermore, the polling on immigration has been mixed and, I think, generally confusing. Despite numbers cited by the White House and others pointing to support for a guest worker program and a "pathway to citizenship," the public seems very much of the enforcement-first mindset as well.

For example, in the most recent Wall Street Journal poll, voters were asked whether they'd be "more likely" or "less likely" to vote for a candidate who favored "increasing border security by building a fence along the border with Mexico." Fifty percent said it made them "more likely" to vote for the candidate, 26% said it made them "less likely," and 22% said it made no difference. However, when voters were asked the same question about a candidate who favored "a guest worker program for illegal immigrants who have been in the United States at least two years," 40% said "more likely," 34% said "less likely" and 21% said "no difference." That's a net positive of 24 points for those who support border security versus a net positive of only 6 points for those who support a guest worker program.

Another data point worth mentioning is from the most recent Democracy Corps poll which asked whether voters supported President Bush's recent proposal of putting 6,000 National Guard troops on the border to "increase border security and limit illegal immigration." Overall, 65% supported the idea and only 31% opposed it. More tellingly, nearly half of those surveyed (48%) said they strongly supported putting troops on the border, while only 20% strongly opposed the idea.

Which leads me to the next reason it was a no-brainer for House Republicans to kill the immigration bill: why on earth would they negotiate away something they've already won? President Bush has already given away the enforcement side of the equation. All border-state Governors have signed off on his plan and the first National Guard Troops have already started arriving at the border. The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement just completed a 19-day long series of raids netting close to 2,100 illegal immigrants. Bush has already committed to doubling the number of Border Patrol Agents over the next two years, building some physical barriers and massively upgrading hi-tech survelliance equipment along the border.

I realize this may seem like "half a loaf" to conservatives, but the fact is the Bush administration is finally showing signs of taking the issue of illegal immigration more seriously, which is what Republicans have wanted all along. Besides, the principal ingredient for a tougher policy on illegal immigration is political will and leadership. We've already got laws on the books that aren't being followed. The House can stiffen penalties as much as they want, but it won't make a single bit of difference if the agencies involved look the other way on illegal immigration or don't enforce the law.

The bottom line is that the Bush administration has taken steps on enforcement - steps which the Republican caucus and the public very much support. There's simply no need for Republicans to turn around and give away an amnesty-type compromise that will endanger their majorities in Congress. Nor does the latest polling indicate they are going to suffer any more than Democrats - and, in fact, less than the President - for not getting an immigration bill. As far as Republicans should be concerned, this thing is better off dead.