Thursday, June 14, 2007

Immigration, public opinion, and extremism

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The immigration bill, of course, is dead. But let me make a few points:

1) Personally, I thought it was a very sensible bill. However, it was a bill that was bound to displease some very powerful people in Washington, hence the abuse it took from both sides of the aisle in the Senate. The perfect is the enemy of the good, after all, and here, as so often, the good lost out because there were, as there so often are, so many claims on the perfect.

2) But did it take equal abuse from both sides? No. Kevin Drum made this valuable point last week: "This was a bipartisan bill sponsored by Ted Kennedy and John McCain and supported by George Bush. Democrats voted 37-11 in favor of moving forward to a final vote. Republicans voted 38-7 against it. In the end, the Democratic leadership delivered nearly 80% of its votes. Bush couldn't even get 20% of his party to go along." It was the extremism of the Republican Party, far more than any extremism of the Democratic Party, that killed the bill.

3) A new Rasmussen poll indicates that a narrow majority of Americans -- 51%, to be precise -- want Congress to "take smaller steps towards reform". Only 20% support the bill that was killed in the Senate. A larger majority of Americans -- 69%, to be precise -- "favor an approach that focuses exclusively on 'exclusively on securing the border and reducing illegal immigration.'" For my views on whether public opinion should matter here, or to what extent it should be taken into account, see here. Short answer: Immigration reform ought to be worked out by the people's representatives, not the people themselves, who, no matter that the polls would suggest, do not necessarily know what they want. (This is not to dismiss the vaunted "American people," just to point out that immigration reform is a complicated beast.)

4) Whatever the results of that poll, a new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll indicates that "at least a plurality of Americans backs the two most contentious provisions of the bill, a proposal to offer 12 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and the creation of a guest-worker program". Here's how the Times puts it: "A strong majority of Americans -- including nearly two-thirds of Republicans -- favor allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements. Indeed: "Only 23% of adults surveyed opposed allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status." This is all quite promising. The xenophobes of the right, and this issue has mobilized them seemingly like no other, are screaming bloody murder about "amnesty," but evidently they are in the minority -- and it isn't even close.

I harbour no illusions that anything will get done on comprehensive immigration reform anytime soon. There are simply too many interests lined up against it. Still, there is hope. The Democrats were overwhelmingly in favour of this effort, and, with larger majorities after next year's elections, they could try again (and have a much better shot of getting something done). And although Americans are concerned about border security and the reduction of illegal immigration, and rightly so, they are not opposed to offering "illegal" immigrants the opportunity to acquire American citizenship as long as certain conditions are met.

A very sensible bill went down to defeat, but the foundations of comprehensive reform, in terms of public opinion and political will, are solid.

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