President Bush and Republicans are staring political disaster in the face on immigration. The problem isn't that they might enact a bill allowing illegal immigrants living in America to earn their way to citizenship, inviting foreign workers to come here, and beefing up security on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. No, it would be a disaster for Republicans if they didn't pass such a bill.
Rarely has the American public been so involved in a national issue as they are today in immigration reform. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody agrees there's a crisis when, as is the case today, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are streaming across our southern border and millions more are already living in this country. The public expects action from the people who run Washington — that's Bush and Republicans. But action is not what they will get if the enforcement-only House refuses to compromise. What they will get in that case is an impasse. And that means the crisis endures.
The American people are not on the side of the House Republicans who favor toughened enforcement and nothing more. On the contrary, a national consensus has formed around what the president calls "comprehensive" immigration reform — that is, impenetrable border security plus earned citizenship and a temporary worker program. But there's a wrinkle in the Senate. Democrats are certain to filibuster legislation consisting solely of enforcement. So it can't pass. However, their constituency groups, particularly immigrant groups, won't permit Democrats to block a comprehensive bill. So it, and only it, can pass in the Senate.
Once the Senate approves an all-inclusive bill, House Republicans will have a decision to make. Will they accept a broader bill, even if it contains what they consider to be amnesty for illegals, or will they insist on the enforcement-only approach they took in the measure they passed in the House last December?
There's a wrinkle in the House, too. Immigration reform may be killed altogether unless a majority of Republicans backs a broader bill. Why? Because House Republican leaders don't want to be put in the politically awkward position of relying on Democrats to approve a comprehensive bill — while a majority of Republicans holds out for narrower legislation. But if they persist in holding out, immigration reform may die.
That would leave Republicans vulnerable to the charge that they voted against stepped-up border security. And the charge would have the added value of being true. Do Republicans, already facing an anti-Bush, anti-Republican mood, want this further stumbling block as they seek reelection this fall? Those in overwhelmingly Republican districts may not have to worry. But what about those in marginal districts?
The last time the public was this engaged in a policy issue was 1994, when President Clinton's health care plan was being debated. But there was a critical difference then. Once the idea took hold that there was no health care crisis in America — there still isn't — health care reform began to fade. It turned out to be postponable.
Immigration reform is not. There really is an immigration crisis. In fact, the very Republicans who want an immigration bill limited to enforcement are largely responsible for having brought to the attention of all Americans the fact that a crisis exists and must be dealt with urgently. For them to prevent a bill now would be political suicide. It would all but guarantee Democratic capture of the House on November 7. "We're in control," says Republican senator Mel Martinez of Florida. "We're in charge. And if we don't produce, it would be a terrible failure. It would be handing the other side a win." A big win.
Imagine the effect it would have on Bush's presidency. Bush is struggling as it is. It was bad enough when his lonely effort to reform Social Security last year flopped. Failure to deliver on immigration reform, the single biggest domestic issue of the decade, would mark the end of the Bush presidency as an effective political force. Bush would become the lamest of lame ducks. His final two years in the White House would be painful.
Passing a bill would have the opposite effect. It would help revive Bush and improve Republican prospects in the fall election. It would show they had come to grips with a national crisis. Bush and Republicans would have done so not only by strengthening border enforcement, but also by keeping faith with the American tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants.
Enforcement-only Republicans have both political and substantive grounds for compromise. Bush and Senate Republicans have gone out of their way to fashion a bill that takes seriously their legitimate concern for security. The Senate voted for 370 miles of triple fencing along the border. It adopted English as the national language. It established tough requirements for earning citizenship. It cut the temporary worker program to 200,000 immigrants a year from 325,000.
More concessions may be needed, such as a cap on the number of green cards issued to foreigners to work in the United States. Those who come to America as guest workers and want to be American citizens could be forced to return to their home country before climbing on the citizenship track.
And then there is the swipe card. The technology is now available to produce a biometric card, using characteristics unique to each holder, that cannot be counterfeited. This would mean that any immigrant without a swipe card could not get a job in this country. An employer would have no excuse for hiring them. This would wipe away much of the incentive to come to America illegally.
This fall, there's no doubt Bush and Republicans will wage a strong negative campaign against Democrats. But they also must provide voters with a powerful reason — a striking positive achievement — for voting Republican. Passage of an immigration bill would do exactly that. Failure to pass a bill would bring on defeat.
By Fred Barnes