Maricopa County may not be closest to Arizona’s border with Mexico but it is nevertheless at the center of the state’s growing problem with illegal immigration. County Attorney Andrew Thomas hopes to be part of the solution. His office is sponsoring the Southwest Conference on Illegal Immigration, Border Security and Crime in Phoenix, reaching out to nationally known commentators and experts on the issue.

The roster of invited speakers includes many noted allies of immigration restrictionists, including Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), representatives of the Federation of American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, and U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo. But also on the agenda are two names more familiar to restrictionists for their opposition—Stephen Moore and John Fund of the Wall Street Journal.

It might be asked what two pundits from the biggest editorial booster for open borders might contribute to a dialogue on solving the border-state illegal alien crisis. But these days, supporters of mass immigration don’t often decree “there shall be open borders.” Instead they are talking about the need to get tough on border security—just as soon as we make our legal-immigration policy loose enough to accommodate the crackdown. They insist they are not opponents of immigration reform; they are just more realistic reformers.

If this is a strategic shift, it has resounded at the highest levels of American politics. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and her New Mexico colleague Bill Richardson were widely praised when they declared a state of emergency on their states’ southern borders. Both are Democrats and neither has been particularly friendly to immigration reformers. Napolitano, for instance, opposed Arizona’s successful Proposition 200 ballot initiative to prevent illegal aliens from receiving taxpayer monies.

President Bush also seems to have gotten the memo. In late August appearances in California and Arizona, he stressed the need to guard the border. Bush acknowledged that illegal immigration was “putting a strain on your resources” and pledged “that the federal government will work closely with the state government and local government to provide assets, manpower [and] detention space … to make sure this border of ours is secure.”
The Bush administration has backed a self-styled Coalition for Border and Economic Security to marshal the resources of industry groups behind a guest-workers program. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is a principal organizer. The co-chairs are former Congressman Cal Dooley (D-Calif.), whose district included many immigrant workers, and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), a favorite of economic and social conservatives. Membership may have its privileges, but they do not come free: the Los Angeles Times reported that admission into the coalition costs between $50,000 and $250,000 to fund the upcoming amnesty campaign blitz.

The idea is to marginalize conservatives who favor reduced immigration by triangulating the issue. The group also seeks to recreate the left-right coalition that torpedoed serious immigration reforms at least nominally supported by the Clinton White House back in 1996.

But they are running into problems. Business groups are reportedly reluctant to sign up because they fear conservatives will push the coalition in a more restrictionist direction. And in contrast with the alliance that upended the 1996 immigration-reform effort, ethnic lobbies do not seem to be playing a prominent role. Whatever interest the National Council of La Raza has in stopping a more stringent immigration policy, it cares more about its constituents’ political clout than agribusiness’s labor needs.

If the politics of the situation are difficult, it might be a reflection on the counterintuitive argument immigration triangulators are trying to make. That argument is perhaps best summarized by New York Times columnist David Brooks, speaking to an apocryphal “working-class guy from the south end of San Antonio”: “The system is out of control. But we can’t just act like lunkheads and think we can solve this problem with brute force. Tough enforcement laws make us feel good but they don’t do the job … we’ve tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven’t made a dent in the number of illegals …”

In other words, the cause of illegal immigration is not that our borders are too porous and our enforcement too lax. Instead our laws are overly restrictive, the argument goes, and our efforts to crack down fly in the face of legitimate economic considerations.

The middle-ground solution the self-designated immigration realists propose is to regularize many of the illegal workers already here, thus bringing them “out of the shadows” and into the law-abiding light of day, and invite more low-cost foreign labor into the country as guest workers. Then we can really get serious about policing the border because our immigration policy will have been adjusted to accommodate an alleged cheap, unskilled labor shortage.

However much support this approach has among the public, it has certainly developed a following on Capitol Hill. Both the bipartisan immigration legislation introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the rival bill sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) create new visas for guest workers and pledge to step up enforcement.

Cornyn-Kyl is widely seen as containing tougher enforcement provisions than McCain-Kennedy. Their proposal also encourages illegals already here to return home before applying for their new guest-worker status—though the force of its deferred departure policy, essentially giving illegals up to five years to go home, is open to question. But commentators favorable to continued mass immigration are hopeful that what the two bills have in common is more important than the differences.

Tamar Jacoby, writing in The Weekly Standard, argued that they both point to “an emerging consensus” on a policy that is both “robust” (read: expansive) and “orderly.” Immigration reduction, however, is out.

The effort to make legalizing large numbers of illegal aliens look like a compromise was bound to run into problems. One is that the combination of amnesty now and enforcement later has been tried before. “People accepted talk in ’86,” says Rosemary Jenks, vice president for government relations at Numbers USA. “They won’t now.”

Jenks is referring to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It coupled amnesty for roughly 3 million illegal immigrants with employer sanctions and promises of stepped-up enforcement. The results were not encouraging: fraud among amnesty applicants was widespread, the enforcement failed to materialize, and illegal immigration increased. The immigration authorities also found themselves overwhelmed by the amnesty applications.

This last issue has critics questioning whether the new immigration realists are being very realistic. Under any proposal along the lines of McCain-Kennedy or Cornyn-Kyl, the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration bureaucracy will be charged with approving temporary work permits and monitoring compliance. With an illegal population approaching 12 million, the number of eligible applicants will be huge. Ineligible applicants are likely to slip through as bureaucrats try to implement the new policy, inevitably under political pressure.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has been forceful on this point. “These bills expect dysfunctional agencies to assume huge new workloads,” he says. “DHS can’t handle its current workload,” Jenks agrees, “yet under these bills they might have to process 11 million applications.”

Guest-workers proponents are likewise unrealistic about the immigration status quo. The repeated assertions that we have tried enforcement but it has failed are based on the amount of money spent on border-patrol agents and bureaucratic budgets without looking at whether Washington actually did anything with the money. Interior enforcement has been lax and employer sanctions underutilized. Workplace arrests of illegal aliens actually declined between 1999 and 2003 and employment-verification programs are in their infancy. As long as illegals can find employment and work without realistic fear of deportation, new border-security initiatives will do little to keep them from flouting immigration laws.

This non-enforcement also undercuts the economic rationale for making illegal immigrants guest workers. The demand for this cheap foreign labor is not entirely a free-market phenomenon. Failures of government policy have given employers a vast pool of willing low-skilled workers, whose family education and health-care needs are to a large extent being subsidized by the taxpayers. This didn’t happen in a vacuum and creates disincentives for wage increases and modernization in fields where illegal aliens reach critical mass. This is closer to corporate welfare than laissez-faire.

But the biggest shortcoming of the grand guest-workers compromise is that it completely ignores many of the reasons Americans want immigration reform in the first place: cultural balkanization, national identity, and linguistic unity. Proponents of the temporary-workers approach assign a higher priority to the economic needs of a relatively small band of employers than to social cohesion.

Moreover, many problems created by immigration stem not from its illegality but the sheer numbers. Increasing legal immigration and giving work permits to illegal aliens will do little to alleviate them and may well make them worse.

A guest-workers bill is unlikely to pass before the midterm elections, when we may see whose immigration politics play better in Maricopa County —the redesigned open-borders Republicans’ or Tom Tancredo’s.