Tucked away in southern New England, Danbury, Connecticut, is far from the U.S. border with Mexico, but illegal immigration is very much a local problem. Residents complain about overcrowded houses, linguistic balkanization in schools, and wage depression. The mayor has called for state police to receive special immigration-enforcement training to contend with the influx.
By some estimates, the blue-collar city of 77,000 now has an illegal population of around 15,000. Many have moved in over the past decade to take landscaping and construction jobs in affluent neighboring suburbs but not without placing a strain on the community’s infrastructure. In April, the new Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Control held a meeting to discuss the issue. “We expected maybe 10 or 15 people would show up,” says cofounder Paul Streitz. Instead turnout was closer to 170, along with a few dozen protestors, and the event received national media attention. “We really touched a nerve in Danbury.”
Across the country, there has been a palpable hardening of the public’s mood on immigration. Yet President Bush and some influential members of Congress from both parties remain impervious to this shift. While cities, states, and concerned citizens’ groups grapple with the federal government’s manifest failure to control the border, the administration and its allies on Capitol Hill continue to tout thinly veiled amnesty proposals.
The latest example is a bill introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)—bearing a restrictionist-sounding title, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act—that would grant temporary-worker status to illegal aliens already in the country and import at least 400,000 new foreign workers a year. Congressmen Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz), and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced a similar version in the House. Bush has so far avoided committing to a specific piece of immigration legislation, but McCain has expressed hope that the president will endorse this one. The bill was drafted with the White House’s immigration policy goals in mind.
Like most such measures, it combines liberalization with promises of improved border security and interior enforcement. Illegal aliens would be able to apply for permits to work in the United States for up to six years, subject to a background check and English-proficiency test. Guest workers who can be matched with U.S. employers seeking to fill those ubiquitous jobs Americans won’t do are eligible for four-year work permits. The enforcement provisions include an employee-verification system to make it easier to avoid hiring undocumented workers and a process for developing a new national border-security strategy.
Sponsors make much of the fact that the legislation would require illegal aliens to pay a $1,000 fine to receive a temporary work permit and another $1,000 when they (and their families) apply for a green card. “This bill is not amnesty,” Sen. Kennedy has insisted. “This bill does not provide a free pass to anyone.”
But it does indisputably give illegal workers the ability to regularize their status and avoid the consequences of flouting immigration laws. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies recently wrote that the only difference between this bill and past amnesties is that it is a “prospective amnesty” rather than a “retroactive amnesty.” Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, echoed this sentiment more bluntly: “There is a little more lipstick on this pig than there was before, but it’s most certainly the same old pig.”
Indeed, the bill doesn’t give local law enforcement new tools to combat illegal immigration. It creates a new, untested employee-verification system instead of expanding the Social Security Administration’s existing pilot program. Its call for a “National Strategy on Border Security,” complete with an advisory committee and working groups, is a case study in how Congress deals with problems it has no interest in solving. And the 400,000 number for guest workers is a floor that can be raised to meet new demands for cheap labor, not a ceiling.
In short, what Kennedy and McCain have offered is almost exactly the opposite of what a majority of Americans wants. Polls have consistently shown that the public favors less immigration, not more, and desires enforcement, not leniency. This is the message that resounds at the grassroots level. “We want just three things,” says Streitz. “Protect the borders, enforce the laws, and no amnesties.”
But congressional amnesty agitation is just a symptom of a larger problem. When it comes to immigration, there is a sizeable discrepancy between political elites and the citizens they purport to represent. Nowhere is the gulf more pronounced than on the Right, where rank-and-file conservatives overwhelmingly favor immigration enforcement and reduction while Bush Republicans maintain that the existing, broken system is already too restrictive. Even the Wall Street Journal, long the Right’s bulwark for open borders, has published stories about the issue’s potential to split the GOP.
There are many reasons GOP elites are far from their party’s base on immigration, but two are of particular importance. The first is the myth that the last national debate over immigration, in the mid-1990s, particularly the bid to pass California’s Proposition 187 denying most public services to illegal aliens, did lasting damage to Republican prospects. Efforts to remake the party’s image on the issue, touted by consultants as the only way to increase the GOP share of the Hispanic vote, have been underway ever since.
This bit of conventional wisdom never made much sense on its face. Nationally, the GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote ranged from a paltry one-fifth to about one-third before Proposition 187 ever made the ballot. California was also already trending Democratic by the time Prop 187 was considered, with liberals Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer taking both of the state’s Senate seats in 1992.
In fact, California Gov. Pete Wilson managed to save his 1994 re-election campaign by backing the initiative. He prospered politically where other more timid Republicans who refused to address illegal immigration failed. It is therefore unsurprising that as his own poll numbers fall, Wilson’s successor Arnold Schwarzenegger has picked up the issue. Prop 187 passed easily with 59 percent of the vote and would almost certainly prevail again today.
The argument from Prop 187 is even less tenable after Arizona passed a similar initiative, Proposition 200, during the 2004 elections. Republicans worried that the ballot question would drive up Hispanic turnout and doom their chances in the state. Every GOP member of Arizona’s congressional delegation came out against the initiative. Like Prop 187, Prop 200 passed by a wide margin—it polled 47 percent even among Hispanics.
What price did Republicans pay for the immigration-enforcement measure’s success? “Kerry lost the state by a wider margin than Al Gore had in 2000,” wrote Chuck Todd in the National Journal. “And the senator actually had paid staff on the ground there for much of the campaign, unlike the vice president in 2000.”
Some conservatives also make an economic argument against immigration enforcement. They see the steady flow of illegals as a free-market response to an unskilled-labor shortage in this country and contend that any policy that interrupts this flow will drive employers out of business. The real problem with our immigration system, Tamar Jacoby wrote in the Weekly Standard, is “a long-standing and all but deliberate mismatch between the size of our yearly quotas and the actual needs of our labor market.”
But this argument ignores the role that government plays, both in Mexico and in the U.S., in illegal immigration. Mexico effectively encourages the emigration of its poor and maintains political ties with illegals in this country. (Note President Vicente Fox’s comment that Mexicans do the jobs even blacks won’t do.) Combined with a policy of non-enforcement by our own government, the result is less market-driven immigration than a virtual subsidy for employers of illegal aliens.
Conservative politicians’ immigration leniency has their supporters looking for other options. Streitz predicts that “given the speed of the Internet and modern communications” it is only a matter of time before elected officials are forced to catch up.
There are signs of this even on Capitol Hill. Although McCain and Kennedy have succeeded in putting together a Left-Right coalition where Bush’s past amnesty trial balloons have failed, it may not be enough to see their plan enacted. Kennedy has already had one immigration failure this year, his AgJOBS amnesty for agricultural workers. In 2004, AgJOBS had a filibuster-proof 63 cosponsors. Now it is seven votes short of being able to make it to the Senate floor.
Once a graveyard for immigration-reform bills passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate has recently approved legislation making it more difficult for illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses and appropriating nearly $300 million in additional border-patrol funds. Even the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), is to the right of Kennedy and McCain on guest workers. “I favor a work-and-return bill, not a work-and-stay bill,” he told the Washington Times.
In the House, the bodies with jurisdiction over most immigration bills are the House Judiciary Committee and its immigration subcommittee. They are chaired by Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the driving force behind federal efforts to deny driver’s licenses to illegals, and Congressman John Hostettler (R-Ind.), a determined amnesty opponent with high ratings from restrictionist groups, respectively.
Powerful forces in both parties are arrayed against immigration control. But activists across the country are exerting pressure on politicians to do the dirty job they were elected to do.