Opponents of the bipartisan gang of eight immigration reform bill have spent the last few months blasting it as a scam. Their primary argument has been that the legislation was cooked up by Democrats to push legalization of the status of illegal immigrants without doing anything to deal with border security, and that Republican members of the gang like Senator Marco Rubio were either sellouts or dupes. Rubio lent some weight to this talking point when he admitted that enforcement provisions needed to be strengthened in order for it to gain more support or even get his own vote. But an agreement between the gang and two key Republican critics of their work to include an unprecedented buildup along the border with Mexico may have taken the air out of the anti-reform forces’ case.
The deal with Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven calls for what its sponsors are calling a surge that will nearly double the number of border patrol agents deployed in the south as well as drones and mandating the completion of another 700 miles of fence separating the United States and Mexico. While no army or barrier can hermetically seal a frontier that crosses nearly half a continent, this will make it much harder for illegals to cross into the United States and go along way toward satisfying the justified worries about the security of those who live in the path of the migrants and those who bring them to this country. More to the point, it puts immigration reform foes to the test. With this kind of language and funding put into the bill, it is no longer possible to pretend that this is a repeat of the 1986 reform package that failed to stop the flood of job seekers from Mexico despite promises to do so. With enforcement of this kind, we have a right to ask those who oppose the bill: what are they really worried about? If they’re not protecting the border or the rule of law (which is flouted by the continuation of the current failed system), what bothers them about the idea of making it possible to create a viable scheme for legal immigration and the gradual legalization of those who are already here?
The answer we’ll get from many immigration foes is that there is something deeply wrong with “rewarding” those 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country with a chance for eventual citizenship. That’s understandable up to a point. Illegal immigrants did break the law. But if they’ve come here to work (generally in jobs that Americans didn’t want) and lead decent crime-free lives, doesn’t it make sense to bring them in out of the shadows and have them paying taxes (as well as fines before they can become citizens) rather than remaining outside the law? Perhaps some still claim that the illegals will, in Mitt Romney’s unfortunate phrase, “self-deport” back to wherever they came from. But we know that won’t happen. Nor will the United States deport 11 million people, many of whom have children that are American citizens. As Rubio has stated again and again, fears about “amnesty” are misplaced since that is what we have now.
Those who also claim that there is a third choice between the status quo and legalization are not being serious. That is not politically possible. Like it or not, the choice is between the gang’s compromise bill—which with its emphasis on border security and steep burdens on those illegals who want to be citizens represents a stark departure from what President Obama and liberal Democrats would like to do—and what we have now.
In the absence of a viable argument about security, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are some among the bill’s opponents who have a deeper objection to immigration reform. Some of them just don’t want to fix a broken system because they don’t want to do anything that facilitates legal immigration. They forget that immigration has always been an engine of American prosperity, not our impoverishment. They confuse the need to reform our runaway entitlements with the needs of people who come here to work. Even worse, some express worry about the growing number of Hispanics and the political implication of immigration.
Suffice it say that these are not the sorts of points that will win many arguments outside of the hard right. The bill is, like all pieces of legislation on this scale, complicated, too long and stuffed with deals to gain votes. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. That may not be enough to convince House Republicans who are convinced the party base is anti-immigration. But stripped of a defensible concern about the border, these GOP members need to understand that they are hurting both the country and their party by resorting to less presentable arguments.