The nation certainly sounds as if it’s in an angry place on immigration.
A major Senate reform bill collapsed in rancor in June, and every effort to revive innocuous bits of it, like a bill to legalize exemplary high school graduates, has been crushed. Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York hatched a plan to let illegal immigrants earn driver’s licenses — and steamrollered into the Valley of Death. Asked if she supported Mr. Spitzer, Senator Hillary Clinton tied herself in knots looking for the safest answer.
The Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, are doggedly out-toughing one another — even Rudolph Giuliani, who once defended but now disowns the immigrants who pulled his hard-up city out of a ditch. A freshman Democratic representative, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, has submitted an enforcement bill bristling with border fencing and punishments. Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, for whom restricting immigration is the first, last and only issue, says he will not run again when his term expires next year. I have done all I can, he says, like some weary gunslinger covered in blood and dust.
The natural allies of immigrants have been cowed into mumbling or silent avoidance. The Democrats’ chief strategist, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, went so far as to declare immigration the latest “third rail of American politics.” This profile in squeamishness was on full display at the Democratic presidential debate last week in Las Vegas, when Wolf Blitzer pressed the candidates for yes-or-no answers on driver’s licenses and Mrs. Clinton, to her great discredit, said no.
This year’s federal failure will not be undone until 2009 at the earliest, while states and local governments will continue doing their own thing, creating a mishmash of immigration policies, most of them harsh and shortsighted. But the wilderness of anger into which Mr. Tancredo helped lead America is not where the country has to be on this vitally important issue, nor where it truly is.
Mrs. Clinton was closer to being right the first time, when she haltingly defended Mr. Spitzer’s reasoning. Fixing immigration is not a yes-or-no question. It’s yes and no. Or if you prefer, no and yes — no to more illegal immigration, to uncontrolled borders and to a flourishing underground economy where employer greed feeds off worker desperation. Yes to extending the blanket of law over the anonymous, undocumented population — through fines and other penalties for breaking the nation’s laws and an orderly path to legal status and citizenship to those who qualify.
These are the ingredients of a realistic approach to a complicated problem. It’s called comprehensive reform, and it rests on the idea that having an undocumented underclass does the country more harm than good. This is not “open-borders amnesty,” a false label stuck on by those who want enforcement and nothing else. It’s tough on the border and on those who sneaked across it. It’s tough but fair to employers who need immigrant workers. It recognizes that American citizens should not have to compete for jobs with a desperate population frightened into accepting rock-bottom wages and working conditions. It makes a serious effort to fix legal immigration by creating an orderly future flow of legal workers.
Americans accept this approach. The National Immigration Forum has compiled nearly two dozen polls from 2007 alone that show Americans consistently favoring a combination of tough enforcement and earned legalization over just enforcement. Elections confirm this. Straight-talking moderates like Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico thrive in the immigration crucible along the southern border. Those who obsess about immigration as single-issue hard-liners, like the Arizonans J. D. Hayworth and Randy Graf, have disappeared, booted by voters. Voters in Virginia this month rejected similar candidates and handed control of the State Senate to Democrats.
It may not be “amnesty” that gets Americans worked up as much as inaction. They seem to sense the weakness and futility in the enforcement-only strategy, the idea of tightening the screws on an informal apartheid system until it is so frightening and hopeless that millions of poor people pack up and leave.
That is the attrition argument, the only answer the anti-amnesty crowd has to comprehensive reform. It is, of course, a passive amnesty that rewards only the most furtive and wily illegal immigrants and the bottom-feeding employers who hire them. It will drive some people out of the country, but will push millions of others — families with members of mixed immigration status, lots of citizen children and practically a nation’s worth of decent, hard workers — further into hiding.
We are already seeing what a full-bore enforcement-only strategy will bring. Bias crimes against Hispanic people are up, hate groups are on the march. Legal immigration remains a mess. Applications for citizenship are up, and the federal citizenship agency, which steeply raised its fees to increase efficiency, is drowning in paperwork and delays. American citizens are being caught up in house-to-house raids by immigration agents.
America is waiting for a leader to risk saying that the best answer is not the simplest one. As John Edwards said at the last debate, “When is our party going to show a little backbone and strength and courage and speak up for those people who have been left behind?”
He was talking about the poor and people without health insurance, but he could — and should — have included a host of others: Business owners who want to hire legal workers. Americans who don’t want their opportunities undermined by the off-the-books economy. Children whose dreams of education and advancement are thwarted by their parents’ hopeless immigration status. And the immigrants, here and abroad, who want to find their place in a society that once welcomed their honest labor, but can’t find a way to do it anymore.