Immigration surprise: broad agreement, not polarization

Posted: Jul 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Conventional wisdom insists that the immigration issue remains so polarizing, so explosively divisive – especially among Republicans – that Congress will make no progress toward meaningful reform before the November elections. New polling data, however, suggests the emergence of an overwhelming consensus behind a common sense approach to this painful, perplexing problem that makes Congressional action not only possible, but imperative.

On two of the three key elements of reform, public opinion is nearly unanimous. Americans of every ethnicity and every political perspective agree that we need both stronger efforts to block illegal crossings at the border, and more vigorous enforcement of laws against employers who knowingly hire millions of undocumented workers. Despite the hysterical charges by fringe groups that President Bush, Senator McCain and Senator Kennedy seek “open borders” that would flood the nation with some 100 million new immigrants, no participant in recent Congressional debates has advocated such a radical, suicidal course. Both the tough enforcement-only House bill and much reviled “comprehensive” approach adopted by the Senate include major commitments to stronger border enforcement – including, in both cases, the construction of an expensive high tech fence to stop illegals from entering the country. And both bills also feature tough new sanctions and enforcement mechanisms to crack down on businesses that hire illegals – with the purportedly “liberal” Senate bill actually providing tougher penalties than its counterpart from the House.

On two crucial elements of a reform agenda, in other words, House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, and some 90% of Americans strongly agree: we need more focus on securing our borders, and more vigorous efforts to stop businesses and individuals from exploiting illegal labor. That leaves the one element of the current debate that supposedly represents an unbridgeable gap between the so-called “pro-immigrant” and “anti-immigrant” forces: the question of what to do about the 11 to 12 million illegals currently living and working in the United States. Even here, however, vast majorities agree on core principles and reject the simplistic sloganeering of the political extremes.

More than three fourths of all Americans, according to the Gallup Poll and all other recent public opinion surveys, accept the notion that some of the current illegals must leave, and some of them should stay. Only tiny minorities back the idea that they should all be forced out of the country (“deportation”) or that they should all have the right to stay and become citizens (“amnesty”). Anyone who believes that it’s possible to force some twelve million human beings from their homes and jobs and schools (in one of the biggest forced migrations in human history) is indulging in a childish fantasy, and anyone who argues that it would be good for the country to place all current illegals on the fast track to citizenship is a panderer or a fool.

The most important question in the current debate isn’t whether the masses of undocumented residents should stay or go – it’s how to make the distinction between those who ought to stay and those who need to go.

On this question, two clear, distinct approaches have emerged that deserve serious consideration as the debate proceeds. The supporters of the “enforcement only” agenda argue that by closing the border, cutting off government benefits and coming down hard on employers, the government will be able to eliminate the jobs that make it possible for illegals to remain in the United States. In short order, according to this argument, the great bulk of undocumented workers will feel discouraged by their new situation and return to their countries of origin. Obviously, some unauthorized immigrants – no doubt at least several million – will find ways to remain in the United States indefinitely but according to the “starve them out” argument, the bulk of illegals will face no choice but going home.

Advocates of “comprehensive reform,” on the other hand, favor a different approach to sorting out the immigrants who need to leave and those who deserve to stay. First, all parties to this debate agree that the 450,000 criminals and violators for whom outstanding deportation orders currently exist (but who the government finds it next to impossible to apprehend) must become the focus of an aggressive new effort to remove them from the country. That still leaves some 10 million illegal immigrants (or more) whose status must be clarified. The Senate bill (generally supported by President Bush) requires payment of thousands of dollars in fines, criminal background checks, certification of consistent employment, and mastery of English, before conferring legal status and the possibility (after a total of some nine years of effort and patience) of citizenship.

In other words, the “comprehensive” approach leaves it up to the immigrant himself, ultimately, as to whether he will achieve legal status and remain in the country. The “enforcement only” approach also lets the immigrant himself decide whether to go or to stay, but instead of rewarding good behavior (paying fines, learning English, working steadily, following the law) it rewards bad behavior (defying legal rules, continuing to work in the untaxed, unregulated underground economy). In other words, rather than driving out the least desirable elements of the immigrant population, enforcement only would drive out the best—those with the most respect for the rules. Those who feel comfortable living in the shadows—or participating in gangs, smuggling, drug dealing, or other lawless activities -- will no doubt find means to continue to defy authority.

Instead of 11 to 12 million illegals who are nearly all (some 94% according to government figures) living in households with one or more employed, we’ll suddenly see 11 to 12 million out-of-work and desperate individuals, trying to find some means to feed their families. The most responsible may indeed return to Mexico or Central America (but for the nearly 30% of illegals who came here from Asia, the business of “going home” is far more complicated). But without some means of repentance, restitution and earned legalization, all illegals will face only two stark choices: going home (even after many years of building lives in the US) or remaining in our country and finding news ways to break the law. It’s obviously better for the country to provide a third choice: allowing the immigrants who are most determined to “rehabilitate themselves” to do so for the sake of themselves and their children.

Most American conservatives understand the old slogan from the gun control debate: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” That brilliant piece of political propaganda recognizes a basic truth: government can never remove all firearms from private ownership, so any attempt to do so will leave the worst elements of society as the only ones with weapons. By the same token, we ought to accept the parallel idea that “If illegal immigration is criminalized, only criminals will be illegal immigrants.” The same way that gun laws harm law-abiding citizens far more than crooks, “enforcement only” immigration policies damage the most responsible and hard-working immigrants more than their criminal or scam-artist counterparts.

This argument, and the notion that mass deportation is neither feasible nor desirable, leads to staggering support for the common sense provisions of comprehensive reform. The latest Gallup Poll (released on July 10, 2006) showed increasing majorities behind the earned legalization provisions of the Senate bill. In response to the question, “Which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States?” a paltry 16% wanted to “deport all illegal immigrants back to their home country.” Two thirds – 66% -- favored “allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become U.S. citizens, but only if they meet certain requirements.” Another 17% backed “allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States in order to work, but only for a limited amount of time.”

In other words, a staggering 83% (and 94% of Hispanics!) backed either “earned legalization” or some form of guest worker program. It’s difficult to get 83% of Americans to agree that Elvis is dead but they united behind the kind of immigration compromise the administration supports.

Another recent poll of Republicans (by the Tarrance group) showed similar consensus: 76% of “strong conservatives” and 77% of “Christian conservatives” backed earned legalization. Amazingly enough (given the demagoguery that has frequently dominated the airwaves), 72% of those who say they listen to talk radio every day, back the same proposition.

In other words, the nativist fringe may combine with die-hard Bush-bashers in the media to promote the idea that immigration reform will shatter the Republican coalition and alienate the President from his base, but polling data and logic rebut that argument. Far from a fatal disaster for the administration and the Congressional GOP, a sweeping compromise on fixing the nation’s broken system of immigration (including stricter enforcement at the border and the workplace, along with a rational means of earned legalization) will constitute a huge political plus and a significant historical achievement.