Ending Amnesty As We Know It: I’ve semi-obsessively compared the current immigration reform debate with the welfare reform debate of the Nixon era, when there was also a respectable bipartisan consensus supporting a disastrous policy idea–the “guaranteed income.” The idea was defeated in Congress on a close vote and faded away. A much more sensible policy–replacing welfare with work– then became the core of what was called “welfare reform,” with a version passing in 1996.
So too with the bipartisan consensus idea of a “legalization first” immigration amnesty–except for one big difference: Welfare recipients aren’t a powerful voting block. Once the guaranteed income was defeated they weren’t going to get much traction by agitating to revive it. Latino voters, on the other hand, have considerable power and a continuing supply of leaders ready to try to turn “legalization first” into a litmus ethnic issue–with opposition to it a sign of semi-racist disrespect. The Latinos aren’t going anywhere–their numbers will only increase (though maybe not as rapidly as was once thought).
Which raises the question: Will the idea of an Obama/McCain-style amnesty ever go away? That’s always been one of the dispiriting features of the current debate–even if amnesty gets beaten this year, won’t it be back next year? With the same support from La Raza and Mark Zuckerberg, big business lobbyists, the Catholic Church and the Media-Amnesty Complex? It’s decidedly not yet beaten this year, of course**–but one reason might be a Sisyphean fatigue among its now-almost-exclusively-Republican opponents in the House. If it’s going to succeed one of these days, why not just get it over with?
The answer is that it won’t necessarily succeed one of these days. Amnesty as we know it can go away, just like the guaranteed income. Here’s my tentative simple, four step plan:
1. Block “Legalization First” bills in this Congress. We don’t have to worry about Congress passing a bill that would take steps to prevent another illegal immigration wave and then only then offer legalization. Such an “enforcement first” approach–designed to prevent a repeat of 1986, when enforcement measures were dropped once amnesty took effect–is a deal-breaker for Democrats. Immigration activist Frank Sharry says “our bottom line … is an inclusive, immediate path to legal status for the 11 million, and an achievable and clear path to eventual citizenship.” Emphasis on “immediate.”
2. Republicans hold on, and maybe even win the Senate in 2014–and hold on again in 2016. Sharry vows that if Republicans do block a bill, his side “will be kicking their ass” in 2014. But even pro-amnesty strategists like Mike Murphy concede that any ass-kicking is unlikely in the lower-turnout midterms. The presidential-year race of 2016 looks to be the test. It’s entirely possible Republicans will nominate a candidate who embraces “legalization first,” while House members continue to display their current “tepid” enthusiasm. If they do and they retain their numbers, it’s unclear why even a President Rubio (let alone a President Clinton) would get them to change their minds.
3. Buy off the business lobby with increased visas and guestworkers, and split the amnesty lobby by legalizing some “DREAMers.” The so-called “Dreamers”–illegals brought into the country “through no fault of their own” when they were young–provide the emotional engine of the amnesty movement. Businessmen who’ve soured on American workers provide the financial muscle. Take away these two forces and the coalition lobbying to legalize all illegals loses much of its juice. Yes, the Dreamers will then turn around (as they’re already doing) and raise the specter that their parents (the ones who were at fault) will be deported. But it’s not the same.
4. Beat a couple of Dem senators on the issue: Any chance that Democratic Senators will ever be less monolithic in support of amnesty? Well, they used to be pretty monolithic on the issue of gun control, until that stand started to cost them elections (and cost their presidential candidates key states like West Virginia). If Tom Cotton, an anti-amnesty leader, beats incumbent Dem Sen. Mark Pryor with the issue, other reddish-state Dems may abandon amnesty they way they flipped on gun control. (Other suggested candidates for reeducation: Manchin, Casey, Landrieu, Hagan, Heitkamp?) And you don’t have to actually beat them to scare them.
What happens then? Well, just as Democrats came to realize they weren’t going to increase redistributive benefits (like welfare, or the EITC) unless they first required work, immigrant activists may realize they won’t get a general legalization until they actually do what’s necessary to end the dream of porous borders and amnesty after amnesty after amnesty, which is what this debate is really about.*** We’ll get universal E-Verify, and a Southern fence. If those sorts of measures work then there can be a big legalization of immigrants already here. (That’s not what the debate is really about.) And “legalization first” goes the way of the “guaranteed income.”****
**– Still Not Dead Yet: The two factors that might still give us an amnesty this year seem to be; 1) Enough Republicans might be persuaded to go along with the “non-citizenship con” in which millions are legalized but not given a “path to citizenship.” That would give GOPs something to boast about and Democrats the near certainty that those legalized will be offered citizenship down the road. An even more pro-Dem variant of this two-step, currently being road-tested, would have Republicans boast only that they voted down a “special path” to citizenship, leaving open the existing, non-special paths, which might even be expanded. 2) If all the big issues–immigration, the budget, Obamacare and now maybe Syria, are thrown into the legislative hopper together, that opens up the possibility of Grand Bargainesque tradeoffs that include an amnesty–e.g. in exchange for budget cuts and Obamacare concessions. Even without a Grand Bargain, defeats and victories for the President may play out in unpredictable ways. If Obama loses the Syria vote, for example, maybe Republicans won’t feel as if they have to win the immigration battle to avoid a total humiliating shutout.
***– In one recent study of Mexican households, 52% agreed that “Mexicans have a right to be in the U.S.” Even more–66%–agreed that “U.S. government has no right to limit immigration.” (See Table 1.) The percentages were much higher among Mexicans who actually intended to cross the border illegally (82% and 86%), which is what you’d expect.
****– Of course, the “guaranteed income” may make a comeback, as part of the alleged transition to a “post-work” society. Eternal vigilance and all that.