Don't Run for the Border

Posted: May 21, 2007 4:57 PM

It's understandable that the White House and its Senate negotiating partners want to rush through the compromise immigration bill they agreed to Thursday. Supporters acknowledge that the delicately balanced legislation could collapse if a single destructive amendment is attached to it. Its sponsors admit they want to minimize the political debate. "We all know this issue can be caught up in extracurricular politics unless we move forward as quickly as possible," says Sen. John McCain , a key architect of the bill.

But this is no way to debate the most sweeping change to our nation's immigration laws in two decades — especially since the last comprehensive attempt, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, failed so spectacularly. The new bill is set to pass with much less analysis in the Senate than the 1986 law, known as Simpson-Mazzoli, had. Senators did not even receive the bill draft until midnight Saturday. After a test vote scheduled for today, Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning a final vote on the bill this Thursday, only one week after the compromise was struck. Shouldn't senators have time to actually read the bill they're being asked to vote on?

Even a key supporter of the bill, Sen. Jon Kyl or Arizona, admitted to radio host Hugh Hewitt that "we don't have to rush the bill through the Senate in a week. . . . Hopefully, the majority leader would allow it to carry over beyond the Memorial Day recess so we could complete it."

Let's hope a comprehensive bill passes this year. If not, it will be another two years before a new president will have another bite at the apple. I favor a comprehensive immigration bill that combines stepped-up border enforcement with a large guest-worker program and a method by which we can bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows of our society. I've written before about how President Eisenhower's Bracero guest-worker program reduced arrests of illegal aliens at the border from over a million in 1954 to only 45,000 by 1959. The number of arrests remained under 100,000 a year until 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson ended the program under pressure from labor unions.

Many immigration experts say they can't know if they support the current compromise until they've absorbed the entire 1,000 page bill. They are concerned that Mr. Reid seems determined to bypass normal committee review and hearings and rush the bill to the floor. "That's like trying to eat an eight-course meal on a 15-minute lunch break," said former senator Fred Thompson on ABC Radio Friday.

Why the rush? Because, to be blunt, the senators don't trust the American people to make sound judgments on such emotional issues as family reunification and national sovereignty. But the proper response to this is to engage the public in the discussion, not to short-circuit the deliberative process. One of the reasons the American people are cynical about government is that they don't believe its officials take the time to discharge their duties properly. Now a 1,000 page immigration bill is being put before senators for a vote without anyone having the time to study its details. Many will merely be leaning on talking points prepared by their staff.

There is no doubt that the lack of deliberation will create surprises if the bill passes. Last year the Senate passed, but the House never took up, an 850-page immigration bill. Among the reasons the bill died in the House was that members were furious about last-minute Senate amendments. One required the U.S. to consult with Mexican officials before any new fence construction could take place along the border. Another allowed for discounted in-state tuition at state colleges and universities for illegal aliens who reside in those states. Legal immigrants and citizens who resided in other states would still have had to pay the full price.

The irony is that this is the Internet age. The entire immigration bill could and should be posted online in a format that would allow changes to be instantaneously added and highlighted. We pay our legislators well to represent us and evaluate legislation, but the immigration bill would probably benefit by giving constituents the ability to look over their shoulders and shine a light on provisions that might sink the bill further along in the legislative process.

There's an old rule in Washington that in dealing with any tough issue, half the politicians hope that citizens don't understand it, while the other half fear that people actually do. Here's hoping that members of Congress and the White House ignore that tendency and come around to the view that in the age of the Internet the people have to be consulted. In retrospect, it's clear that the 1986 Simpson-Mizzoli reform with its flawed amnesty provisions and lack of a workable guest-worker program would never have passed if the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle had existed then. The only way to pass this latest reform is to recognize how much the world of instant communication has changed politics.

Populism — supporting the rights and power of average citizens — can be at the extremes dangerous and demagogic. But in as large and diverse a country as the U.S. consulting the people as closely as possible may be the only way to pass an immigration bill that will stand the test of time.