Political Hay

Comprehensive Confusion

The House revisits the immigration quagmire, and thanks to Rep. Jeff Flake's co-sponsorship, the new bill could be an attention grabber.

By 3.27.07

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How quickly Washington's conventional wisdom turns. Just last week, there were reports that 2008 politics had driven a wedge between John McCain and Ted Kennedy, killing off chances for new immigration legislation in this Congress. Now Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have introduced a bill of their own. Activists are said to be cautiously optimistic; the Washington Post approves.

Comprehensive immigration reform is dead; long live comprehensive immigration reform.

The Gutierrez-Flake bill -- its ostentatious official name is the STRIVE (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy) Act -- has two things going for it that its Senate counterpart did not. For starters, its GOP sponsor is a conservative standout. While his colleagues were busy loading up bills with earmarks, Flake remained a vocal proponent of spending restraint who didn't mince words about red-ink Republicanism. His candor (and probably his immigration enthusiasm) got him unceremoniously dumped from the House Judiciary Committee.

Second, while Senate Democrats excluded Republicans not named McCain from the negotiations (even if they had voted for last year's controversial immigration bill) Gutierrez-Flake contains several provisions aimed at winning GOP votes. Although the Democrats control both houses of Congress, many members prefer bipartisan legislation or none at all to inoculate themselves from election-year amnesty charges.

So while the bill still transforms illegal immigrants who arrived before June 2006 into "temporary workers" and offers them a path to citizenship after six years -- if they pay $2,000 plus back taxes, learn English and civics, and commit no felonies -- it also boasts some new features that make it seem tougher than McCain-Kennedy. Gutierrez and Flake promise there will be no path to citizenship until after provisions toughening workplace enforcement and border security have taken effect.

There's also a new "touchback" requirement mandating that illegals exit the United States and reenter the country legally. Perhaps because they prefer computers to football, the Washington Post describes this as "rebooting" one's immigration status.

Yet the trouble with most comprehensive bills is that their authors are too clever by half. Many of the hoops illegal aliens will need to jump through to keep these measures from being stuck with the amnesty label will either be symbolic or ineffective at bringing unlawful workers into the mainstream.

If this new touchback idea is seriously enforced, some of the intended beneficiaries -- being poor and having limited English skills -- may find it too difficult to comply and decide not to bother with the vacation time in Mexico. But if illegal immigrants are merely required to leave the U.S. for a day or a few hours, with all their paperwork completed before they depart, the provision may amount to what Center for Immigration Studies executive director Mark Krikorian calls a game of "Immigration Twister."

Either the touchback is a "critical addition the bill," as Flake says, or it is a "political fig leaf that will allow immigration hawks to claim a symbolic victory," as the Washington Post describes it.

Other enforcement measures are susceptible to similar problems. Strapped immigration bureaucracies, already struggling with a backlog of over 4 million unresolved cases, will face millions of new applications. Either the background checks will be strictly enforced, leading to delays and denials, or the system will be vulnerable to fraud. During the 1986 amnesty, some 90 percent of applicants ended up being approved amidst such complaints about sloppiness.

Finally, what happens to the temporary workers if they don't want to go home after six years? The promise of citizenship will surely be an incentive for many of them to abide by the law. But for those who don't, why will deportation be any more feasible six years from now? And Gutierrez-Flake would admit another 400,000 new guest workers per year on top of the illegal immigrants seeking to adjust their status.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports that stepped up enforcement seems to have caused significant disruptions in illegal immigration: "Previous crackdowns have served only to shift illegal crossings to new areas, but so far this year there are no signs that the border has sprung another leak. Apprehensions have decreased in every area along the Southwest border, in some places by more than two-thirds."

This is what everybody on Capitol Hill claims to be for: better border security. Maybe Congress would be better served by focusing on this area of agreement than the contentious issue of how to handle the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here. In the present political climate, a comprehensive solution may be no solution at all.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.