Immigration is a hot-button issue if ever there were one -- complete with angry protests in the streets and insults volleyed across the Beltway. The issue hits about every fault line there is, especially politics, religion and family. And yet, even with all its contentiousness, the immigration debate we've been having in the United States these last few weeks was actually a bit of a gift to some U.S. senators. Or at least it could have been, had they made full use of it. For presidential hopefuls, immigration provided an opportunity to show some independence from the White House and show a little leadership. Not many answered the call. At least one took to the gutter.
In the end, just before recessing for Memorial Day, 39 Democrats and 23 Republicans voted for an immigration bill that the president encouraged and praised. One of those Republicans, John McCain -- who most obviously wants to run for president in 2008 -- uttered on the Senate floor what was probably the worst sentence of the entire debate (counting out crazies). In arguing for an earned income tax credit for illegal immigrants, McCain flippantly asked, "what's next -- are we going to say work-authorized immigrants are going to have to ride in the back of the bus?" There was never any doubt that McCain was pro-amnesty for illegal immigrants -- which is the president's position, albeit not what he calls it. But in the mind of this supposed statesman, Americans who oppose subsidizing illegal immigrants are akin to racist Jim Crow supporters of another day. This was the same week during which he ticked off talk-radio audiences by allegedly calling the ever-popular Rush Limbaugh, among others, "nativists" at what was supposed to be an off-the-record event in New York. Word got around and anyone willing to give him some leeway likely abandoned their forgiving natures by the time he was dishing out the loaded bus rhetoric.
McCain may have been the worst of the pack, but he wasn't the only disappointment. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee had every rhetorical opportunity as leader to insist on the Senate taking an enforce-immigration-law-first approach to controlling the borders, rather than pushing through a waiver to those who have already broken our laws. Despite, at times, talking like he was tough, he was a frustrating disappointment to many conservatives who support serious immigration reform, ultimately pushing the final bad bill. (McCain, by contrast, was more playing to expectations, with some panache.) As one Senate staffer describes the Frist immigration position: No one "was never sure where he was on things. Supported a strong border bill, then brought the amnesty bill to the floor without at least calling it amnesty. He then seemed to fight back, but then joined the amnesty 'compromise' presser last month. He seemed to be coming back our way this week, then voted for the bill. Frustrating." One keen observer of the debate calls the Frist all-encompassing approach "weaselly."
Of the trio (McCain, Frist, Allen), the most talked about 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls in the Senate, George Allen of Virginia, was the only one to oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants. His willingness to lend his name and presence to the anti-amnesty crowd made it all the more frustrating that he did not make himself the Senate go-to guy on the issue.
To his credit Allen was clear that the bill, as he put it, "rewards illegal behavior." But if you were looking for presidential candidates in this debate -- outspoken point men -- you'd more likely look at the likes of Alabama's Jeff Sessions.
In arguing against the bill, Sessions told his colleagues: "We are here to confront one of the big issues of our time, and to do it in a way that is consistent with our laws and our values and the values of the American people." Sessions continued, "this legislation fails miserable in that regard. It is unworthy of the Senate. ... It does not meet our highest ideals. It does not create a system that is consistent with the national interests of the United States."
Sessions is a leader. He's one who stood out on this crucial issue. For many others in the Senate, though, it was an opportunity lost on an issue where polls show Americans were looking for real reform -- law enforcement first.
Can we send McCain to the back of the 2008 bus now?