5/18/2007

The Immigration Bill: Compromised by Compromise?

So, it looks like the Senate has reached a compromise on immigration. In a nutshell, this bill would require illegal aliens to pay a hefty fine, create a new type of visa that would allow them to stay in the US legally, allow them to apply for permanent residency after eight years, and fortify the Border Patrol.

It seems like a practical solution, but there are going to be A LOT of angry voters out there because of this bill. I guess if you're being attacked by the left and the right, that means you've found a sufficient balance. But there are four competing constituencies that further complicate matters:

1. Liberals want to accommodate illegal aliens and give them more rights for humanistic reasons. Many illegal aliens come to America so they can make a better life for their families. Wages are often so low and working conditions are often so poor in their home countries that it makes working in America so much more attractive. Why should illegal aliens be penalized for trying to seek a better life here? And isn't the United States supposed to be a nation of immigrants? Does Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses have any meaning whatsoever?

2. Conservatives vehemently oppose illegal immigration because the fact that these aliens are in the United States illegally makes them lawbreakers who should not be entitled to any social services or federal or municipal benefits whatsoever. They believe these illegal aliens are a drain on local community resources that should be allocated to US citizens and legal immigrants. They equate legalizing their presence in America as amnesty, which is a non-starter for them. A nativist subset of the conservative wing also doesn't like the fact that these mostly brown people speak Spanish and eat pollo con arroz instead of pot roast. They fear that America's identity is at stake.

3. Opportunistic Democratic politicians sense an opportunity to cultivate millions of new potential Democratic voters. They remember what happened to former California Governor Pete Wilson. Gov. Wilson's crackdown on illegal immigration turned California into a reliably Democratic state because of its high Hispanic population that was enraged by Wilson's policies. Gov. Wilson also helped brand the Republican Party as the party that is not sympathetic to illegal immigrants. The Republican Party continues to struggle for support among minorities to this very day. Democrats don't want to make that same "mistake," so they want to portray themselves as "being on the side" of families who come to America to search for a better life.

4. Big business Republican politicians know who writes their campaign checks. Corporate America often relies on illegal immigrants because they provide a steady source of cheap, no-hassle labor. Why pay an American $15 an hour if a Mexican will do it for $10? Why bother hiring an American who is a member of a labor union and wants health insurance and retirement benefits if you can get a Guatemalan who just wants a salary? This keeps costs down and profits up, which makes business executives very, very happy. They know Republicans are their allies in Washington and will continue to fund their campaigns so long as these legislators keep their bread buttered.

This compromise bill seems to satisfy a little bit of each of these four groups' concerns. But I think there is a huge intensity gap separating the second group (conservatives) from the other three. Illegal immigration is one of those hot-button issues that can significantly drive up turnout, much like abortion and gun rights do. I'm not yet sure how this will play out nationally, but I will say this:

Because of this intensity gap, this compromise legislation may prove fatal for the political aspirations of two Republican senators in general: John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

John McCain is the most credible top tier Republican presidential candidate when it comes to his conservative record. However, he has been viewed with suspicion because of his membership in the "Gang of 14," campaign finance reform legislation, and the maverick streak he has exhibited in the past. Mitt Romney's recent "conversions" to conservatism are often derided, and Rudy Giuliani is obviously a moderate. Conservatives who didn't trust McCain before may view his support of this compromise bill as the final straw that turns them off from his campaign. Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson may be the beneficiaries of McCain's possible implosion because of this issue. McCain's problem is that both independents and conservatives view him with suspicion. Unfortunately for McCain, conservatives are much more important for him because without conservative support, he cannot win the Republican presidential nomination. Period.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is often criticized by South Carolinians for not being conservative enough for their tastes. He was also a member of the Gang of 14, which didn't sit too well in this very red state. Senator Graham is up for reelection in 2008. Look for him to have to contend with a strong conservative challenger in the state's Republican primary. It is quite possible that he will not survive. South Carolina Democrats don't particularly like Senator Graham because even though he often talks tough about President Bush, he ultimately sides with Bush anyway. However, they are happy with the fact that he is not a hardcore conservative like Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma or Senator Sessions of Alabama. If such a Republican beats Senator Graham in the Republican primary, could this open up the door for a moderate Democratic challenger to win Lindsey Graham's Senate seat?

And finally, even though I'm more of a libertarian or a liberal when it comes to social issues (anti-censorship, supporter of gay rights, etc.), I am a staunch conservative when it comes to illegal immigration. My wife is not an American citizen. We had to go through a painstakingly rigorous, expensive, and time-consuming process in order to get her green card approved. We had to shell out hundreds of dollars in application fees, transportation expenses, and legal services--all of which were a part of the permanent residency application process. Check out some of the forums at Visa Journey and read some of the threads there to get an idea of what other international couples have to deal with in order to come to the United States legally. There are stressful interviews at far away embassies, long periods of waiting on the telephone only to hear an agent tell you they don't know anything about your immigration case, and even fees just to contact the embassy in certain cases. After all the work we had to do just to get my wife in the United States legally, it incenses me to know that someone can simply jump a fence or hide in the trunk of a car as it crosses a border checkpoint and still get hired on the other side and even receive government benefits in so-called sanctuary cities.

Having said that, I realize it is not practical to round up 10 million people and send them back to their countries of origin. So this compromise is probably the most pragmatic way of dealing with the problem. However, let it be known that there are millions and millions of other similarly angry voters out there who will severely penalize Republican legislators who sign onto this bill. Democrats probably won't be penalized as heavily because Iraq is where their voters' intensity lies. But Republicans should be particularly careful.

John McCain's poll numbers should be intriguing to watch. We could be witnessing a presidential flameout in the making.

1 comment(s):

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Definitely with you on the staunch conservativism of immigration.

I just don't think it's right for folks who are not legal citizens to benefit from citizen tax money.