September 19, 2006
Immigration’s Lost Year
Congressional leaders and President Bush insisted for months that they were serious about fixing the immigration system. They weren’t, and the more talk you hear about border security, about building walls and getting tough this time, the clearer it will be that hopes for effective immigration reform this year are past saving, pinned down by strong arms in the Republican-controlled House and kicked until dead.
The latest proposals are the product of a Republicans-only “forum” last week that distilled the bilge water of a summer’s worth of immigration “hearings,” which were actually badly disguised campaign events. The hearings — with titles like “How Does Illegal Immigration Impact American Taxpayers and Will the Reid-Kennedy Amnesty Worsen the Blow?” — were show trials put on to destroy comprehensive reform by any means necessary. “What I wanted was witnesses who agree with me, not disagree with me,” said Representative Charlie Norwood of Georgia, putting it perfectly.
The “Reid-Kennedy Amnesty,” by the way, refers to the now-defunct Senate immigration bill, which passed that Republican-controlled body with the support of stalwarts like Arlen Specter, John McCain, Mel Martinez, Bill Frist, Chuck Hagel and the most prominent Republican of all, Mr. Bush. One of the many signs of the hysteria accompanying this election season is the way their moderate approach to immigration has been tarred as wholesale “amnesty” for lawbreakers.
Like the summer hearings, the latest G.O.P. legislation is an empty vessel, a sham product aimed at the November elections that sells the test-marketed concept of “security” with little to back it up. By decreeing that a 700-mile fence should be the nation’s top immigration priority while rabidly opposing a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, the House Republicans are hotly pursing a failed strategy. What satisfies the talk-radio appetite for justice — wall ’em out and deport the rest — is not just needlessly cruel. It also won’t work.
If the House Republicans have their way and enforcement-only becomes our national policy, illegal immigrants will keep their heads down and keep working, cowed into accepting low pay and abuse, dragging down working conditions for everybody else. Lawlessness among the employers who hire them will be encouraged. If you like this world of illegality, anonymity and under-the-table cash, then the House Republican approach is the one for you.
Real immigration security means separating the harmful from the hard-working. It means imposing the rule of law on the ad-hoc immigrant economy. It means freeing up resources so that overburdened law-enforcement agencies can restore order at the border and in the workplace. It means holding employers, not just workers, responsible for obeying the law. And it means tapping the energy of vast numbers of immigrants who dream of becoming citizens and who can make the country stronger.
These are huge tasks, and the anti-immigrant forces have nothing to contribute. They are out of ideas, except about getting re-elected. Their calculated inaction and half-measures mock Americans’ support for comprehensive reform, which has been repeatedly confirmed in opinion polls.
We will see whether the November elections will make the travesty worth it for the immigrant-bashers, but for the nation it has become a lost year.