Having just finished a piece on the politics of immigration for the magazine (one of the reasons for my absence from the blog), I turned to Ramesh Ponnuru’s immigration article in a recent issue of National Review. Ponnuru writes:
Some thoughtful conservative restrictionists concede that once the illegal-immigrant population is shrunk to a manageable level, some path to legality could be put in place. But even they warn that openly discussing this possibility could act as a magnet. That risk seems small enough to be worth taking – especially if the alternative is a total opposition to amnesty that proves politically self-defeating….
The debate over amnesty has sometimes obscured the more important question of whom, and how many, we should let in. Amnesty is itself important primarily as it bears on that question. Conservatives, like others, have dug-in positions, with a few saying we need to pass a law that includes a path to citizenship at the same time we step up enforcement and many more saying we should not do it at all. The right time for amnesty is in between now and never.
That’s not far from my own position. I think that if the illegal immigrant population were reduced to a manageable level, we could and probably should entertain an amnesty for the hard cases that remain. This is the implicit end game for the attrition through enforcement strategy of dealing with illegal immigration. And you’ll note that pro-enforcement conservatives generally describe themselves as being for enforcement first.
But when it comes to discussing a possible amnesty openly, I’m not sure I weigh the risks the same. Attrition has to be given a chance to work before amnesty can be discussed — any perception that amnesty is inevitable will dissuade some irreducible number of illegals from self-deporting, even in the face of stepped up enforcement. The only way that amnesty won’t be a magnet is if it seen in the same light as amnesties for draft and tax evaders: it must be viewed as a one-time event in a context where the law is usually enforced.
To me, where the risk seems small enough to be worth taking is the possibility that “total opposition to amnesty… proves politically self-defeating.” Real-world efforts to practice attrition through enforcement, such as in Arizona and parts of Virginia, have elicited a lot of criticism but no significant political backlash against enforcement supporters. When you look closely at the congressional races Republicans are said to have lost because of immigration, in almost every case there was a lot more going on that led to their defeat. Even supporters of a path to citizenship — that is, amnesty — bend over backwards to describe themselves as actually being totally opposed to amnesty.
If anti-amnesty Republicans like J.D. Hayworth continue to get voted out of office in political climates closer to 2010 than 2006 or 2008, I might revise my judgment. Or if I saw some empirical evidence that talking about an eventual amnesty made some voting bloc, such as Hispanics, more comfortable with immigration enforcement. Barring such evidence, though, it just doesn’t sound to me like it would produce political benefits worth the risks of undercutting enforcement.