Thursday, May 24, 2007

The assault on the immigration reform bill

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The bipartisan immigration reform bill -- that very sensible bill, in my view -- has already taken a beating, from both sides:

The Senate slashed the size of a proposed guest-worker program for foreign laborers yesterday, dealing the first real blow to a fragile overhaul of the nation's immigration laws since it reached the Senate floor this week.

The bipartisan 74 to 24 vote trimmed a program that could have admitted as many as 600,000 laborers a year down to 200,000, a level that proponents asserted would minimize the risk that participants would depress wages and replace U.S. workers.

This over the objections of the Bush Administration. Still:

The bipartisan negotiators who created the immigration bill said the blow to what they call their "grand bargain" will not unravel the coalition. The compromise is premised on four central tenets: tightening border controls and punishing the employers of illegal immigrants; granting legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country; establishing a robust guest-worker program to give would-be illegal immigrants a legitimate route into the country; and shifting the emphasis of future legal migration away from family reunification and into favoring immigrants with work skills and education.

In other words, the core of the bill is still intact. If it takes additional compromise here and there to secure its passage, such as Judd Gregg's border-control amendment (also adopted by the Senate), so be it. But there are (at least) two huge problems.

1) From TNR's John Judis (sub. req.): "I'll be surprised if it ever becomes law. One reason is the complexity of the 326-page bill. The other reason is the complexity of the politics of immigration. Both parties have an interest in preventing it from reaching the president's desk." Immigration is like abortion in that the issue "cuts across party lines". However, "the Republican divide is more problematic [than the Democratic one]. The most intense opposition to assimilating illegal immigrants is concentrated in the Republican Party. If you look at what issues matter to Republican primary voters, immigration always ranks near the top". And there is intense opposition to the bill on the right that isn't about to subside. And so:

-- "If the current bill -- presumably with a few draconian amendments to attract more Republicans -- were to pass, then Republicans could potentially alienate part of their base without winning over Latino voters who will continue to see Democrats as more friendly to their cause. So Republicans are probably best off if the bill gets bottled up and dies."

-- "Democrats, on the other hand, also have reason to hope a bill doesn't pass. As long as they position themselves as being more friendly to illegal immigrants than the anti-immigrant Republicans, they stand to get the kind of support they got from Latino voters in 2006. But if they can also warn that temporary workers can bring wages down, and argue for better border enforcement, they stand a better chance of winning white working-class voters in states like Wyoming, Montana, and Michigan."

Yes, it's all about race and class. And winning in '08.

2) From Rasmussen: There is little popular support for the bill. "A Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey conducted Monday and Tuesday night shows that just 26% of American voters favor passage of the legislation. Forty-eight percent (48%) are opposed while 26% are not sure." And, as Ed Morrissey points out, examining the numbers closely: "Not a single demographic in the study favors this proposal, except under Race:Other. Democrats oppose it 51-28. Republicans oppose it 47-25. Men and women both clearly oppose it. Only people ages 30-39 come close to overcoming opposition, 34-32 in opposition."

But of course. The bill is a compromise that unites such divergent figures as George Bush and Ted Kennedy. It isn't perfect, but it's good. But that isn't good enough for its critics, who will hold out for the perfect and, in so doing, defeat the good, no matter what. And this goes for the public, as well. What sort of immigration bill would secure widespread popular support? Is widespread popular support for such a massive undertaking even possible? No matter what, there will always be something to criticize. No bill will ever appeal to everyone, or even to most everyone, and certainly not to partisans of either party.

I don't dismiss public opinion on this matter, but the fact is that American democracy is not direct. Issues of public policy are not put to the people as they are with regularity in places like Switzerland and Ireland. America is a representative democracy. It is up to the people's representatives to work out public policy and, where necessary, to seek compromise. For their part, what does this poll-defined majority of the American people that opposes this bill want? Does it even know what it wants? Probably not, at least not beyond a few vague and perhaps contradictory principles. This is why immigration reform must be worked out by the people's representatives, not the people themselves. Call me a Burkean, but that's how I see it.

So, sure, a tweak here and a tweak there, as long as the core remains intact -- which it is, for now. I certainly understand the concern regarding guest workers and border control, and the two key amendments mentioned here do make some sense to me. But Judis may be right. It seems to be in the immediate electoral interests of both parties to prevent this bill from going to Bush and becoming law. And, without the public behind it in large numbers, there won't be any significant pressure from outside the Beltway to overcome these interests and to work out, finally, a compromise that can get through Congress.

Alas, in American politics, and in politics generally, there is often no greater loser than the good.

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