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The Immigration Wars Rage On By: David Keene
The Hill | Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The war over immigration reform among conservatives continues, and, as in most wars, truth has been one of the first casualties.

Those who disagree with the hardening positions of people who would adopt more restrictive policies or with people who favor less restrictive measures are attacked as know-nothings, traitors or handmaidens of evil forces out to destroy the America we live in.

Many conservatives reacted angrily to the way the Bush administration tried to demonize opposition to the president’s quasi-amnesty and guest-worker proposals when they were first introduced. Critics at the time were characterized as racists or “nativists” more interested in trashing Mexicans than in a rational approach to immigration reform. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado was semipublicly horsewhipped by White House officials and told never again to darken the president’s door.

It was a foolish way to begin an important debate and was quickly abandoned, as even the most ardent supporters of the Bush approach realized that the critics were speaking for millions of Americans who were troubled by the president’s plan. Since then, while sticking to its guns in advocating what it likes to call a “comprehensive” solution to the immigration problem, the administration has moved border security up as the first and most important element of any plan.

The problem is that rhetoric won’t do it, for the simple reason that, having been there and done that in 1986, people want to see results. Whether they might support other elements of a “comprehensive” plan, that support won’t materialize until they see evidence of a real commitment to gain control of our borders.

As the debate opened several years ago, those seeking more restrictionist or rational policies were unequivocal in acknowledging the importance of legal immigration and rejected as farcical the charge that what they really want are not secure but closed borders and a massive national effort to round up the illegals here today and send them packing. But positions have hardened in the days since.

I count myself among those who believe that we must first secure our borders and that we should make it uncomfortable for those here illegally to work or take advantage of the perks that go with being a U.S. citizen. I oppose nonresident tuition for their children and would change the law so that those born of illegals on U.S. soil wouldn’t automatically become eligible for citizenship. I support strong employer sanctions, and I oppose the sort of amnesty proposed by Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.).

At the same time, I recognize, as do most Americans, that we benefit from legal immigration and should continue to serve as a beacon to those seeking a better life because in doing so they can improve our lives as well as their own. The problem is not where immigrants come from but whether we require those seeking citizenship to learn and commit to what it means to be an American and whether we welcome those we need without overwhelming our ability to assimilate or absorb them.

The vehemence of the recent attack on Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) for trying to come up with a plan that would mandate border security first, impose heavy sanctions on employers who hire illegals and require them to leave the country if they ever hope to work here legally shocked me. Tom Tancredo attacked Pence before he could know what was in the plan, Pat Buchanan says that his disagreement with him and his friends signals the end of Pence’s career, and some of Pence’s colleagues whom he counts among his strongest friends and supporters are looking at him these days as if he’s some sort of traitor.

Actually, that’s exactly what Buchanan thinks he is; a traitor to the “cause” and a part of the secret plan to grant amnesty to illegals. Those of us who actually had kind things to say about Pence’s approach were cited in his attack as indicators that “the fix is in.”

Pence’s approach is not perfect, and he has been modifying it to answer legitimate substantive criticism. That’s the way things are supposed to work. It’s the way serious public figures go about the business of solving problems and developing sound public policy.

It’s too early to say whether Pence’s willingness to tackle one of the most serious and politically dangerous policy questions facing the nation from a conservative perspective will lead to an acceptable solution, but, unlike many of his critics, Mike Pence must be counted among Washington’s most serious public figures.

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David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm.

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