This weekend’s massive protests against Congressional bills that would make illegal alien status a felony demonstrated the cultural divide coming to this nation and the political struggle facing the Republican majority in Congress. Against this backdrop, the immigration bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, leaps into the stalled Senate debate on immigration with a forceful vote against amnesty for illegal aliens and in favor of stronger border enforcement—but it also in favors greater legal immigration. Unlike the bill approved by the House, HR 4437, Frist does not turn illegal entry into a felony, a key issue to the 500,000 protestors in Los Angeles and tens of thousands in other cities over the weekend.
Frist’s bill requires company computer checks of employees’ legal status to winnow out the estimated 11 million illegals believed to be in the US. The computer checks would be phased in over a five-year period to progressively smaller companies. At the same time, opportunities to obtain permanent residency ‘green cards’ are sharply expanded. There would be an allocation for 100,000 H-1B “guest workers”—far lower than the 400,000-500,000 proposed by Senator John McCain, R-AZ, or Senator Arlen Specter, R-PA. While Frist does not offer blanket amnesty, there would be a much greater opportunity for many who are now here illegally to obtain permanent residency by going through the visa application process.
With polls showing strong majorities demanding action on immigration and border control, Frist’s bill (S-2454) delivers more fences and more enforcement to border state citizens who are angry about the out-of-control border. It sends those caught entering the U.S. illegally to detention and then back to their home country.
At the same time his increased provisions for legal immigration allow for the needs of growing businesses—without a huge increase in “temporary” “guest workers.” This contrasts sharply with the bills being debated in Arlen Specter’s Senate Judiciary Committee that call for a massive guest worker program and amnesty. Current immigration policy creates a class of under-protected illegal workers. Some estimates count as many as 11 million illegal aliens in the country. Guest worker programs make the relationship legal, but also make some U.S. industries dependent on low wage workers, thus reducing their incentives to invest in labor-saving technology. By favoring expanded legal immigration leading to work and citizenship over guest worker programs which lead only to temporary work—possibly with limited rights and pay—Frist’s bill moves the de facto immigration policy away from one that creates a class of under-protected workers and towards one where all immigrants are legal and most are headed towards citizenship.
Increased legal immigration restores America’s ability to select its immigrants. By avoiding any blanket amnesty while giving existing illegals the opportunity to apply for visas if they fit into existing family, student or job-skill based immigration categories, the bill prevents us from taking in millions of future citizens on the basis of the fact that their first act was to break the law. At the same time Frist avoids a policy which, if enforced, would lead to mass deportations.
A February 3-7 Zogby Poll shows 62 percent of Americans want their Congressmen to support more restrictive policies governing immigration.
Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Numbers USA are advocating not only an end to illegal immigration and deportation of all illegals, but are also advocating reduced levels of legal immigration. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, reflects that sentiment with HR 4437 which not only makes illegal entry a felony, but actually reduces the number of legal immigrant visas by 50,000 per year. HR 4437 was approved by the House in its last session.
It is easy to portray the anti-immigration sentiment as coming from the political right, but FAIR, a leading anti-immigration group, played a key role in two attempts to take over the Sierra Club in 1998 and again in 2004
Writing in Reason Magazine in 1998, Virginia Postrel says:
Its opponents often characterized the resolution as a product of outside agitators. “Zealots Target Sierra Club: Immigration Foes Working to Usurp Club Elections,” screamed a headline in the left-leaning L.A. Weekly. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope called the measure's supporters “nativists” and “right-wingers.” Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez described it as “a clumsy, right-wing effort” and its backers as “a small group of super-ethnocentrists.”
Things are not that simple, however. The resolution sprang not from right-wing outsiders, but from the vital intellectual core of the environmental movement. Its backers included long-time environmental leaders such as Worldwatch Institute head Lester Brown, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, and EarthFirst! founder Dave Foreman.
And the ideas behind it have not gone away. They will inspire many such efforts in the future. After all, the leading anti-immigrant group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, has its roots not on the nativist right but on the green left, among population-control advocates.
Brad Knickerbocker in 2004 writing in the Christian Science Monitor describes the anti-immigration faction of the Sierra Club:
Leaders of the anti-immigration faction are mainly establishment types - former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and university professors from around the country. Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, president of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and an advocate of zero population growth, gathered enough club support to get himself nominated and then elected to a board position last year. So did two other population activists.
After the Dubai ports debacle left many protectionist voters alienated, Democrats are salivating at the possibility that the immigration debate could cause protectionists to veer away from the Republicans.
Democrats have only two post-Jim-Crow models for capturing the presidency: Watergate and Ross Perot. Efforts to rerun the Watergate scenario against President Bush—complete with “news” articles speculating on a vice presidential resignation—have yet to produce anything except denials. On the other hand, Democratic efforts to stampede isolationist voters made sudden headway earlier this month with the Dubai Ports deal controversy. In this context, Frist is riding into the breach with a bill designed to resolve the protectionists’ longest-running bone of contention with the GOP—illegal immigration—and forestall a three-way-race that could deliver victory for Hillary Clinton in 2008 just as it did for her husband in 1992 and 1996.
Another political dimension is the Hispanic voter. When 500,000 Hispanics protest in Los Angeles against making illegal entry a felony, the potential electoral consequences suggest themselves. Newsweek quotes Sen. Mel Martinez, R-FL, as saying, “Republicans have made significant gains [among Latinos] and we're risking all of that by allowing ourselves to be positioned as anti-immigrant...We are at great peril.”
If the House and Senate can agree on a bill that tightens up the border, improves workplace enforcement and does not offer amnesty—but at the same time expands legal immigration and does not lead to mass deportations or felony arrests and imprisonment—the Republicans will have gone a long way towards resolving one of the nation’s most intractable political issues.
Bill Frist is showing the way. The question now is: who will follow?
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