The debate over immigration reform has once more shown its capacity to fracture the Republican coalition. John McCain, a co-author of last week’s reform bill, recently engaged in a nasty exchange on the Senate floor with fellow Republican John Cornyn of Texas, who opposed the bill. And bill supporters Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina were roundly booed at their respective state conventions.
So far, the response by the Republican faithful to the Bush-Kennedy-McCain immigration reform proposal is redolent of both the 1976 uproar surrounding the Panama Canal treaty (which would help make Reagan president in 1980) and the current administration’s Dubai ports fiasco. As with the Panama Canal treaty, which roused patriotic sentiment, immigration in general touches on American’s sense of national identity. But the phenomenon of illegal immigration, which this bill was designed to address, strikes closer to the heart of citizens: working and middle-class voters feel that they have been made foreigners in their own localities by the influx of cheap labor. As with the Dubai ports deal, the Bush administration seems to be undermining its own core principles by failing to put security first.
The Washington Post noted in a front-page story that there is little reason to believe that the (deservedly maligned) Department of Homeland Security will be up to the enormous administrative task of implementing the legislation. Similarly, many voters will remember the 1986 immigration reform bill, which provided amnesty for illegal immigrants in exchange for enforcement provisions that never took hold.
McCain will no doubt be hurt by the fallout from the deal and his show of temper in defending it; Mitt Romney, in yet another flip-flop, now claims to oppose the bill. Rudy Giuliani has done little other than question the bill’s security implications. Though immigration is unlikely to boost a second-tier candidate into the top rank, it might provide the opportunity for an outsider like Tom Tancredo (who has already murmured about running) to put together a breakaway campaign based on his opposition to both abortion and illegal immigration. Whatever happens, it is obvious that for the Republican party, the political costs of this deal are going to be high.