The Republican base wants to crack down on illegal immigration — but that will never happen as long as grassroots conservatives are lulled by the sweet words of amnesty advocates.

By W. James Antle III

Ending birthright citizenship is suddenly all the rage among Republican big shots in Washington. Both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner have endorsed the idea. So has Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl. But one surprising voice has joined the chorus.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican known for being a pro-amnesty “maverick,” has led the charge in getting the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on citizenship reforms long touted by immigration restrictionists. Graham hasn’t suddenly found religion on controlling illegal immigration. He’s just looking for political cover for his next piece of amnesty legislation.

“Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that I need to go home to South Carolina and say: listen, I know we’re all upset that we have 12-14 million people illegally, ” Graham admitted to National Review. “I’m going to have to be practical. We’re not going to deport or jail 12-14 million people.” He then touted the same “comprehensive immigration reform” South Carolina conservatives have overwhelmingly scorned as amnesty.

Of course, Graham had already signaled less directly that he is not really serious about addressing the illegal-immigration problem with enforcement rather than amnesty. One of his ideas for reforming birthright citizenship was to revise the Fourteenth Amendment with another constitutional amendment. As has been demonstrated on issues ranging from abortion to flag-burning, no-hope constitutional amendments are the standard way Republican politicians turn out the conservative base without actually having to do anything concrete to promote conservative policies.

Why would Graham, one of the most prominent supporters of amnesty in the Republican Party, so brazenly engage in empty pandering? Perhaps he has learned from his mentor, Sen. John McCain. McCain was Ted Kennedy’s partner in pursuing amnesty for illegal immigrants during the Bush years. He is now seeking reelection in Arizona, a state that has been severely damaged by the country’s porous borders and whose voters — particularly the Republican primary electorate — are angry about immigration non-enforcement.

Yet according to polls of GOP primary voters, McCain still leads. In some cases, he is ahead by more than 20 percentage points. McCain’s conservative primary challenger, former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, is far from perfect. But Hayworth has a point when he says that McCain is not a trustworthy convert to the immigration-enforcement cause. Hayworth has a devastating ad tying McCain’s admission that he’s lied to win elections before with the incumbent senator’s longtime amnesty advocacy. It remains to be seen whether it will dent McCain’s standing.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, meanwhile, has dramatically turned around her lackluster reelection numbers by signing and stoutly defending her state’s controversial legislation cracking down on illegal immigration. Brewer’s revival is comparable to Pete Wilson’s in 1994, after the California Republican embraced Proposition 187. McCain has said the right things about the Arizona immigration law too, but he has been a latecomer to this issue.

No matter. In a widely discussed campaign commercial, McCain is seen strolling along the U.S.-Mexican border alongside a beleaguered local sheriff. The two men lament the smuggling, murder, and other crime that comes with the illegal-immigrant influx before celebrating McCain’s 10-point plan to secure the border. The most memorable point: “Complete the danged fence.” How things have changed since McCain contemptuously told Vanity Fair, “I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want.”

The security fence hasn’t just gone from being “goddamned” to “danged.” McCain has gone from being in league with open-borders Republicans and pro-immigration liberals to being, in the sheriff’s catchphrase, “one of us.” That’s “us” as in pro-sovereignty conservatives who favor serious enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. How did this happen?

Conservatives of all stripes have been too quick to forgive Republican malfeasance. This was all too evident when McCain captured the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and proceeded to win overwhelming conservative support for his dismal general election campaign against Barack Obama. But immigration hawks have proved the most pliant.

Illegal immigration motivates as much passionate grassroots activism as is seen among the Tea Party or pro-life movements. Just ask the Minutemen. But you would seldom see dedicated Tea Partiers bailing out a pro-bailout politician in a competitive Republican primary. Similarly, pro-lifers did not rally behind Rudy Giuliani, a staunch defender of legal abortion, when “America’s Mayor” sought a promotion to the presidency. Why isn’t amnesty sinking McCain in a Republican primary in Arizona, of all places?

The restrictionist Right has made a great deal of progress in pushing a pro-business Republican Party in the direction of its pro-enforcement base and away from its cheap-labor-lobby donors. Unfortunately, all but the most engaged of these anti-illegal immigration voters remain vague about what constitutes a pro-enforcement position. That means they are easy for Republican politicians to placate with the right rhetoric about immigration and border security.

Virtually no one openly campaigns in favor of amnesty outside of safe Democratic districts. Thus determining a candidate’s real position on illegal immigration often comes down to buzzwords, especially when they avoid specifics: border security combined with a “path to citizenship” or a “guest-workers program,” even when the newcomers will be “temporary” or will have to “get in the back of the line,” is basically the same thing as the McCain-Kennedy amnesty.

Republican candidates routinely get away with using pro-amnesty weasel-words. In California, Senate candidate Carly Fiorina solemnly vows she will oppose amnesty. Then in the next breath she laments the absence of “a temporary worker program that works.” In English, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is “100 percent opposed to granting amnesty to immigrants who entered the country illegally.” In Spanish, she emphasizes she is a “different kind of candidate” who opposes the Arizona immigration law and her own state’s Proposition 187. Both of these women defeated Republicans to their right on immigration in the primaries.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican rising star, called for an “orderly process… for people to gain citizenship,” many pro-enforcement conservatives simply refused to be believe that Christie was hinting at supporting amnesty. Readers complained when Hot Air blogger AllahPundit expressed concern about Christie’s position. Commenters at the American Spectator similarly complained when reporter Philip Klein described Christie’s immigration stance as likely being “to the left of where the primary electorate is.”

Perhaps even the immigration hawks themselves are moving to the left. In the 1990s, there was a serious discussion about reducing legal immigration. Members of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus pushed an immigration moratorium. Even the Clinton-appointed commission headed by Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan recommended lower immigration levels. Now the focus is entirely on illegal immigration, even as the national unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent.

The restrictionist right has enjoyed near-annual success in beating back bipartisan establishment pushes for an immigration amnesty. This has involved detailed, technical critiques of innocuous-sounding legislation, explaining why it really amounts to amnesty, why the attractive enforcement provisions won’t work, and why the conditions that impose on legalization aren’t as rigid as they first appear. Restrictionist conservatives will have to extend this precision to their evaluation of Republican candidates and popularize a coherent view of immigration policy.

In the meantime, one other development would help immigration hawks: they could stop being such cheap dates that even John McCain and Lindsey Graham feel confident wooing them.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

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