The Looming Immigration War

Tancredo for president, and other battles


Meet Jorge Humberto Hernandez Soto. The Mexican national is helping to flog Congress toward a showdown over the nation's immigration laws. Soto—unlicensed, illegal, and drunk—managed to get a borrowed Ford Explorer going 100 miles per hour the wrong way down Interstate 485 outside Charlotte, N.C., hitting another car and killing an 18-year old college student in the process.

Incidents like the one involving Soto, who was sent back to Mexico at least 17 times by U.S. authorities before his deadly wreck two weeks ago, are fueling popular demand for action—any action—at the federal, state, and local level. Across the nation, reliable weather-vane politicians like North Carolina Rep. Sue Myrick are rushing to demonstrate their tough-on-immigration credentials, lining up behind tougher immigration and border control legislation.

As a result, what was once Rep. Tom Tancredo's (R-Colo.) own personal hot-button issue is now a national immigration-reform movement. Fanned by talk-radio, not to mention Republican mania for some kind of wedge issue now that they've abandoned fiscal conservatism, immigration is shaping up as the Us vs. Them issue, certainly for next year's midterm election and perhaps 2008 as well.

Tancredo is sniffing around Iowa and has the dreaded and dread-filled potential POTUS candidate's book—In Mortal Danger—on the way. His Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus now has 91 members and expects to get actual House floor votes on several of its reform bills when Congress returns. With the GOP leadership in disarray, there is no telling how many votes the proposal might get.

As ever, a clumsy Bush administration move sparked the political firestorm. The White House spit out a half-hearted immigration reform plan, the core of which was a conceptually sound but poorly explained guest worker program. Many conservatives of a populist stripe never heard anything past the words "guest worker." A guest worker has to work somewhere, you see, and work means a job. A job that an American citizen would otherwise have. This is an absolute article of faith among the immigration reform camp.

They believe, for example, that contrary to several decades of experience, there exists a wage rate at which American citizens will claw sweet potatoes out of the sandy South Carolina soil with their bare hands, Jorge Humberto Hernandez Soto–style.

The reformers also promise harsh penalties on employers who hire illegal labor, a reflection of the certitude that the Bush administration is slow to act on the issue because "big business" wants cheap labor. You know, those corporate sweet potato buyers who could pay $10 a pound for tubers, but just like sticking it to the working man in between sipping double-scotches and buying yachts.

However, nothing reflects the profound shift in congressional thinking about immigration than the sudden conviction that "anchor babies" are part of America's immigration problem. Children born of illegal parents in the U.S. become citizens automatically, thus serving to anchor their parents to the country, sucking up entitlements and public school seats in the bargain. Along with a sturdy border fence, an end to anchor babies has become one of the magic-bullet fixes many reformers insist upon.

"I'm all in favor of people from other countries becoming U.S. citizens, but I don't know that it is appropriate to become a citizen automatically just by having the parents come into this country illegally and then be born here," Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) told The Arizona Republic last week.

Shadegg is one of 69 co-sponsors of a bill that would end America's policy of birth-rights citizenship. At one time advocating this change—which would seemingly require an amendment to the Constitution—was mostly for show. But reformers have recently embraced the interpretation of the 14th amendment offered by Chapman University School of Law professor John Eastman.

Eastman turned heads in September in testimony before the House Immigration, Border Security and Claims subcommittee by arguing that the amendment could be read to mean that children born to illegals in the U.S. were not citizens precisely because, as illegals, the parents had not subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.

It is a controversial reading of the amendment, and the change would still face many hurdles—not the least of which would be the Senate —even if it were somehow to pass the House. But that such a fundamental change in American law is even under serious discussion underscores the degree to which immigration reform is a salient national political issue, as opposed to a state-wide or regional concern. There is no denying that House Republicans, Tancredo especially, intend to run with an immigration crackdown for 2006 and see where it leads.

Jeff A. Taylor writes the weekly Reason Express.