Immigration Reform: How to Tell Whether McCain, Gang of Eight is Serious


Politico is reporting some details on what had been anticipated for a while: a Senate-based framework for so-called comprehensive immigration reform. Read some as vague. Politico says it looked at a five-page outline which it characterizes thus:

The sweeping proposal — agreed to in principle by eight senators — would seek to overhaul the legal immigrationsystem as well as create a pathway to citizenship for the nation's roughly 11 million illegal immigrants. But establishing that pathway would depend on whether the U.S. first implements stricter border enforcement measures and new rules ensuring immigrants have left the country in compliance with their visas. Young people brought to the country as children illegally and seasonal agriculture industry workers would be given a faster path to citizenship.

The broad agreement by the influential Gang of Eight senators amounts to the most serious bipartisan effort to act on the highly charged issue since George W. Bush's comprehensive measure was defeated in the Senate in 2007.

It remains to be seen if Obama will embrace the Senate effort, or how closely his own proposal hews to the Senate one. But the Senate proposal is expected to take precedence on Capitol Hill, given that bipartisan backing will be crucial to getting anything through the Democratic-controlled Senate — let alone the Republican-controlled House.

There's probably less here than meets the eye. The GOP is looking to fix some of its image problems with the Hispanic population (since the the 2004 presidential election, when George W. Bush pulled somewhere between 40 percent and about 45 percent of the Hispanic vote, it's all been downhill). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tells the Sunday morning shows, "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that." He's right about that, but there's no reason to expect Republicans to do either the smart thing or the right thing. Long considered pro-immigrant, McNasty himself espoused stupid and anti-immigrant ads during his 2008 presidential bid, obviously in the hopes of securing the Minuteman-style voter.

Exactly where the Obama White House is on this is unclear. As Politico notes, "It remains to be seen if Obama will embrace the Senate effort, or how closely his own proposal hews to the Senate one." Except that we have a pretty good sense of where President Obama has been on immigration: He has deported record numbers of them and continues to spend record amounts of money on the agencies that harass them and employers who hire them. His election-year conversion to a humane policy toward children brought here illegally by their parents was a small sop to Hispanic voters against Mitt "Self-Deportation" Romney, who managed to drive John McCain's abysmal share of the latino vote even lower (Romney scored a pathetic 27 percent; McCain managed 31 percent).

Besides McCain, the Senate's "Gang of Eight" includes Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Michael Bennett (D-Colo). So there's some firepower there in terms of big deals. Senate newcomer Jeff Flake has a long history of pushing good immigration policy as a congressman from a border state (Arizona) and places such as Colorado and Illinois are massive magnets for newcomers, so that's all to the good. But there's also plenty of room for disaster (Menendez is facing mounting interest in his apparent dalliances with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, Schumer couldn't get along with newborn puppies, Lindsey Graham is no idea of a statesman, etc.).

To me, the biggest problem is even the way the vaguer than vague framework above is crafted: Path to citizenship (a.k.a. amnesty in the noxious phraseology of nativists), yes, but only after amping up border security. What does that even mean? The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled over the past seven years and deportations continue despite significant reductions in the number of people entering the country illegally. The feds spend more on just the policing efforts of the border than they do on all other federal law enforcement operations combined. Stricter border security? It's already here, amigo, so let's get on with the normalizing of folks who may have been living here for years and paying Social Security, Medicare, income, property, and sales taxes in high percentages. (About 60 percent of illegals pay income taxes and about two-thirds pay payroll taxes; they aren't undocumented—they have fake documents that funnel money to the government that they will never get back). We've already absorbed the 11 million or so illegal immigrants living in the country. They work among us, they pay taxes, and the families of those who don't already speak English learn our mother tongue (the one forced on us by Great Britain) at the same rate as past immigrants. Apart from schooling for kids (many of whom are actually American citizens) and emergency medical care, immigrants (legal and otherwise) are barred from most welfare programs, and they tend to break the law at lower rates than native-born Americans.

I think the most interesting indicator of how serious the senators are will revolve around their rhetoric. If they spend a lot of time talking about border security and employer-verification systems (reportedly a big part of any deal going forward), don't hold your breath for anything approaching reform. The government doesn't want to admit it, but except in totalitarian countries, they don't run the border. People come and go based on large-scale dynamics that simply overwhelm most nations' ability to control in-flows and out-flows of people. E-verify systems are a nightmare filled either with error rates that will harass thousands of innocent people and businesses or else be so porous all they will do is add a drag on hiring legally. If the senators start really working the Sunday shows and their constituents about how immigration benefits our economy and is the right thing to do from a historical and moral perspective, that will be the sign that they're meaning to take this across the finish line.