With the White House’s blessing, the Senate has reached a deal on immigration. And Sen. John McCain has handed his opponents for the Republican nomination a mighty club to wield against him — if they choose to use it.
As Rudy Giuliani’s lead over the Arizona senator slipped into the single digits in many national polls, McCain assumed a lower profile on the immigration issue. Sen. Sam Brownback went even further, repudiating his support for last year’s Senate bill containing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Now there is a new bill offering such a provision and McCain, like fellow Arizonan Jon Kyl, is on board.
However the rest of the field responds, this much is clear: When Ronald Reagan revived his flagging 1976 presidential campaign by railing against the Panama Canal Treaty, many observers were shocked by the issue’s resonance. Today, no one can be surprised when conservatives speak out against anything that can be construed as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The reaction to the immigration announcement was swift. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and perhaps future presidential candidate, denounced it on Sean Hannity’s radio show as “a sellout of every conservative principle.” The Heritage Foundation agreed. Congressman Mike Pence issued a statement calling the bill an amnesty.
While the deal was being picked apart by talk radio and the blogs, John McCain was appearing on television with Ted Kennedy to promote it. Arlen Specter’s presence — and insistence that the Senate isn’t talking about amnesty — doesn’t give McCain much cover with conservatives. Neither does the news that the bill was drafted with the help of liberal groups like the National Council of La Raza.
Is it amnesty? Like past versions of McCain-Kennedy, the bill offers illegal aliens a path to citizenship and creates a new guest-worker program. Supporters argue that the measure only applies to illegals who have passed a background check while paying fines and back taxes. In a new twist, guest workers could only be admitted and unlawful immigrants legalized after certain enforcement provisions have taken effect. And in the long term, the legislation may shift the immigration system’s focus away from family reunification and toward employment skills.
But there are already concerns that the “enforcement triggers” may prove more fungible than advertised. If the Democrats win in 2008, do conservatives trust Hillary’s Department of Homeland Security to certify that the borders are secure? Worse, the bill creates probationary “Z visas” for illegal immigrants present and working in the United States since the beginning of this year as well as their parents, spouses, and children.
The probationary period begins before any of the enforcement triggers are pulled. The visa-holders are eligible to stay in the country indefinitely, possibly undermining the appeal of the path to citizenship. And all this assumes that the country’s existing immigration bureaucracy, with a backlog of 4 million unresolved cases, can properly determine the status of at least 12 million people in a timely manner.
It may be 1986 all over again. After that year’s Immigration Reform and Control Act became law, nearly twice as many people applied as officials expected and over 90 percent were accepted. Today the numbers are even greater. So is the potential for amnesty to occur without the promised enforcement ever materializing.
Mitt Romney was quick to pounce. “I strongly oppose today’s bill going through the Senate,” he said in a statement. “It’s the wrong approach.” All eyes are on Rudy — and the rest of the GOP contenders, all the way down to the bottom tier. McCain has helped give his rivals an opportunity to appeal to disaffected conservatives on a populist issue.
“Life is unfair,” John F. Kennedy observed. However mistaken this deal, McCain is as much a conviction politician on immigration as Tom Tancredo. Giuliani once sued to block welfare and immigration reform laws he believed were too strict with New York City’s illegal aliens. Romney took a position similar in principle to this bill’s language as recently as Tuesday’s South Carolina debate.
But conservative voters will remember the immigration partnership between John McCain and Ted Kennedy. In a Republican primary, that is dangerous company to keep.
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