Conservatives are sometimes blind to what's in their own best interest. This is especially true on immigration — all the more so on the narrower matter of the bipartisan immigration reform bill now before the Senate. The bill gives conservatives a large chunk of what they've wanted for years, plus some things they don't want. The balance is heavily in their favor, though, and they're crazy to oppose this once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop illegal immigration and enact sensible policies for legal immigration.
At the top of the list of what conservatives can get is significantly beefed-up security along America's southern border. And that's just what's in the initial bill negotiated by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Without blowing up the Kyl-Kennedy compromise, border enforcement can be further strengthened through amendments. Indeed, it was strengthened, in the first week of debate in May, with an amendment by Republican senator Judd Gregg that requires "demonstrated" operational control of the entire border with Mexico.
Then there's the "trigger," a brainstorm of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. It delays further reform — including issuance of Z visas allowing the estimated 12 million illegals in the United States to stay indefinitely — until all the steps to tighten border security have been taken.
Admittedly, Washington has a credibility problem on border security. Illegals have been sprinting across the border for decades, all but unimpeded. So it's understandable most Americans don't trust Washington to choke off the flow of illegals and cut it to an acceptable trickle. Here again, the bill can be improved, notably by adopting a suggestion of columnist Charles Krauthammer that success in securing the border be quantified — he suggested a 90 percent reduction in illegal immigration — before the trigger is activated.
Next is a temporary worker program. We desperately need one. There's a labor shortage in America and not only in agriculture. That's why businesses employ so many illegal immigrants in the first place. The Senate bill limits the program to 200,000 foreign workers a year, but that can and should be enlarged. And in a bow to conservatives, guest workers must return to their native country. There's no special path to citizenship for them, as there was in last year's Senate immigration bill.
Perhaps best of all, there's a reform that's been drastically undervalued by conservatives and everyone else: the end of chain migration. Currently, extended families of immigrants are given preference in entering America, and then the extended families of these extended families get priority, and so on. The chain goes on forever. This so-called "family unification" has meant we have practically no control over who comes in. Sixty percent or more of legal immigrants in recent years have arrived through this policy.
Also terminated in the Kyl-Kennedy legislation, thank heavens, is the "visa lottery" that lets 50,000 immigrants in annually, their names selected at random. Among those who have benefited was Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, an Egyptian with a Muslim Brotherhood background whose wife won a green card in the lottery. In a 2002 terrorist attack, he opened fire on the line of passengers at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two people.
While nixing these misbegotten programs, the bill would limit immigrant families to husband, wife, and minor children. And merit — measured by education, skills, and job experience — would become a major factor in issuing visas. In short, we would admit those who meet America's needs, not those who happen to be distant nephews of an immigrant who arrived decades ago. Here, too, the bill may need tinkering to assure that the smartest and most needed — scientists, engineers, technicians, the Ph.D. crowd essentially — get in.
It would be wonderful if these four reforms — indisputably conservative reforms, loathed by liberals — could be packaged in a single bill that would sail through the Senate and House and be signed by the president. But the chances of that hover just above zero. Attaching two more provisions favored by many conservatives — a squeeze on illegal immigrants by denying them many government benefits and a requirement that local authorities notify immigration officials when they arrest or detain an illegal — would reduce that likelihood to absolute zero.
The reason is nearly every Democrat and a significant number of Republicans in Congress are opposed to such a one-sided bill. Fine, some conservatives think, let's cool our heels. Attitudes on immigration will change. Then we can take action. But this means waiting until Washington is ruled by Senate majority leader Jim DeMint, House speaker Tom Tancredo, and President Pat Buchanan. It means waiting forever.
At no time in the recent past could conservatives get what they crave on immigration and nothing more. And at no time in the foreseeable political future will they get only what they want, with no serious concessions or compromises, weakening amendments or offsetting liberal modifications. Republicans ran Congress and the White House from 2001 to this year and didn't come close to passing such immigration reforms. With Democrats now in charge, the prospects for purely conservative legislation are even more forbidding.
For conservatives, President Bush is part of the immigration problem. He opposes a tough crackdown on illegal immigrants. But so did the most conservative presidents of the twentieth century, so did Ronald Reagan, and, in all likelihood, so will the next president. On immigration, the White House is a lost cause for conservative restrictionists.
The default position of conservatives is to do nothing at all on immigration. It assumes that things could be worse, and indeed will be, if any conceivable legislation passes. But immigration is not like a weak economy that will revive sooner if government doesn't act. The immigration problem will only get worse absent reform. We have the example of the past several decades as proof.
Besides, is it the practice of conservatives to confront a huge national problem, then do nothing about it? I don't think so. Rather, that's the liberal custom on issues like entitlements, racial preferences, and crime. That's why liberals, not conservatives, have become today's reactionaries.
Nevertheless, many conservatives rejected the Kyl-Kennedy bill instantly, emphatically, and largely for one reason. They insist it's an amnesty bill, and they're right. It is an amnesty bill of sorts. The vast majority of folks living in America unlawfully wouldn't be arrested, prosecuted, or deported. On the other hand, they wouldn't be automatically eligible for citizenship either. But the bar for staying permanently with a Z visa — the trigger sunsets an initial probationary Z visa — would be set quite low. The criteria (learn English, pay a fine, stay out of jail) would be easy to meet. In effect, illegal immigrants would become privileged buttinskis, permitted to stay in the United States while others wait in the legal immigration line.
It's entirely understandable that conservatives are upset by this. And their skepticism about the bill's promise to deport illegal immigrants who don't qualify for Z visas and to force temporary foreign workers to go home is well-founded. Here once again, the bill can be improved by an amendment mandating expedited deportation of those without Z visas. The bill now requires only that deportation proceedings commence immediately.
Conservatives haven't sufficiently taken into account the other side of the bargain. The Kyl-Kennedy legislation — Kyl modestly thinks the bill ultimately won't be named after him — is a compromise. It's not ideal from anyone's perspective. Compromises never are. So Kyl-Kennedy is a deal in which both sides get something and give up something. It must be judged by how the tradeoffs balance out.
In negotiations with Kennedy, Kyl got the four major reforms favored by conservatives: border buildup, the trigger, temporary workers, and an end to chain migration. Kennedy got the Z visas to legalize 12 million people who've broken the law. The Z visas may be the single biggest accomplishment. But, cumulatively, what Kyl achieved amounts to much more. He — and conservatives — got the better deal.
Look at it this way. Kennedy's triumph is in allowing 12 million illegal immigrants to stay here indefinitely and pursue citizenship (only if they're ready to return to their home country). But it's not as if these people were going to be tossed out of the country otherwise. Even conservatives unhappy with the bill surely recognize this. The 12 million are here to stay, legally or illegally.
Remember: Without a compromise, there would be no opportunity at all to reform the badly broken immigration system. There would be no sweeping conservative reforms in play. And the 12 million would still be here.
Conservatives have nightmares about repeating the immigration reform experience of 1986. The immigration bill that year targeted employers who violated the ban on hiring illegal laborers. But enforcement never happened. Employers had an alibi: They were fooled by fake IDs. Today there are tamper-proof biometric IDs, leaving employers with no excuse for hiring an immigrant without one. And officials have no excuse for not enforcing the law.
Last week, President Bush infuriated conservatives who oppose the immigration compromise by accusing them of nitpicking. He was wrong about this. Nitpicking is exactly what's good for a bill that's 380 pages long and written in dense legislative language. The time to expose flaws and correct them is before a bill becomes law.
There's a role for Bush in the immigration debate, but attacking opponents isn't it. Instead, the president should vow to enforce immigration laws vigorously this time and prepare the federal bureaucracy to carry out reform measures that may be enacted. It will take much reassurance to persuade the public that Washington really means it this time on immigration.
A final point: Conservatives shouldn't be turned off by the presence of Kennedy as the Democratic collaborator on immigration. "Ted wants a bill," Kyl says. Faced with reaching agreement with one of the four horsemen of partisanship — Democratic senators Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, or Pat Leahy — Kyl can be forgiven for looking elsewhere. Those guys want an issue with which to bludgeon Republicans, not a bill.
Every now and then, an issue comes along that causes politicians and their followers to lose their sense of proportion. That's what the war in Iraq has done to liberals and Democrats. My fear is immigration is having that effect on many conservatives. It doesn't have to, though, and it won't, if conservatives take a fresh look at the immigration reform bill and realize where their true interest lies.
By Fred Barnes