The immigration debate within the Senate has severely damaged the presidential chances among conservatives of two key Republican senators: Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) and John McCain (R.-Ariz.).
When McCain put his name on the immigration bill sponsored by Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.), many conservatives felt he virtually embraced the concept of amnesty for the approximately 12 million illegal aliens the Bush Administration admits are now in the United States. Despite McCain’s recent attempt to sound more conservative, many on the right felt his alignment with the Democratic left on the immigration issue was the last straw.
Brownback placed himself squarely in the middle of the compromise that was engineered by Senators Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.). The Hagel-Martinez compromise was premised on distinguishing illegal aliens who had been in the U.S. for five years or more, offering this group a Kennedy-McCain “pathway to citizenship” if they first left the country for a “port of entry” like El Paso, and then applied for re-entry.
The Hagel-Martinez plan was long on compromise and short on practicality. In the currently raging black market for forged documents, any illegal alien could produce “proof” of being in the U.S. for five years or more, provided the illegal alien had the requisite cash in his or her pocket. The Hagel-Martinez plan was also fuzzy how we would enforce illegal aliens leaving for specified cities, such as El Paso, or what would happen to them if they just stayed in place.
Over the past few years, Brownback had won considerable favor among conservatives for his support of religious freedom worldwide and his strong position on moral issues, including his opposition to abortion. Brownback has also been an important voice fighting for human rights and religious freedom in Iran. Clearly, Brownback’s sympathy for illegal aliens stemmed from his concern about their human rights. The problem is that while most conservatives are willing to acknowledge the human rights of illegal aliens, there is widespread conviction that those “human rights” do not include a right to U.S. citizenship, especially as a reward for having immigrated here illegally in the first place.
Illegal immigration has become an emotionally charged issue in the U.S., with most conservatives agreeing with Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minuteman Project, that securing our borders is issue number one. H.R. 4437 advanced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) is the approach most conservatives support. Until the borders are secured, any form of “guest worker” program or “pathway to citizenship” for illegal aliens should not even be on the table.
Since 1965, we have seen a series of immigration bills that have been long on amnesty and short on enforcement, regardless how tough the legislation was worded. Conservatives believe that 25 million “guest worker” or “pathway to citizenship” immigrants from Mexico and the other Hispanic countries south of the border is a sure formula to bankrupt welfare or to tax the middle class into ruin, while threatening our national sovereignty. The immigrant marches of the past few months have reinforced the image in Middle America that especially the illegal immigrants here from Mexico are Mexico citizens first and foremost, and only potentially U.S. “dual citizens” as an afterthought. The radical left has pressed the image of Aztlán to the point where cities in California becoming safe havens for illegal immigrants by passing sanctuary laws are seen by conservatives as a warning sign of Mexico’s growing intrusion into U.S. national politics.
Immigration for the Reagan conservative movement is quickly becoming a litmus test issue, every bit as much as the issue of abortion already is. McCain fails on both accounts. And even though Brownback is considered strongly pro-life, his visible position at the center of the immigration compromise may well disqualify him among conservatives for serious support as a presidential candidate in 2008.
For decades, political scientists have argued that successful presidential candidates need to move toward the middle. This rule may not apply today, when radical leftists dominate the Democratic Party and conservatives dominate the moral majority that is the core strength of the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton faces the same dilemma Brownback faces. If Hillary is perceived by the radical left within the Democratic Party as moving to far toward the political center, she may easily lose the party’s 2008 presidential nomination. Moreover, no serious presidential contender of either party can afford to see their core supports — on the left for the Democrats, on the right for Republicans — sit out an election simply because they have lost enthusiasm for a candidate who is seen as “siding with the enemy” by moving to the political middle.
The conservative moral majority of the Republican Party was energized in 2004 given the confrontation with John Kerry. That is a lesson no presidential hopeful should forget, especially not when deciding how to proceed on immigration. Even President Bush should be reminded that his enthusiasm for a North American Union may cost him dearly in the mid-year congressional elections and the in the subsequent second-term pain his administration will most certainly suffer should a Democratic majority end up controlling House of Representatives.