A Hard Bill to Love

A less permissive tone on immigration was signaled in the Senate last Tuesday when a proposal to cut guest worker visas down to 200,000 from 350,000 was supported by a surprisingly one-sided vote of 80 to 17. The mood change was not influenced by a leader in either party or by a major interest group. For once, the Senate was moved by a think tank report.

Last Monday, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a paper by Robert Rector, its senior research fellow in domestic policy studies, that became an instant favorite on Capitol Hill. Rector warned that the administration-supported bill pending in the Senate would admit an unprecedented 103 million persons over the next 20 years. This, said Rector, "would transform the United States socially, economically and politically. Within two decades, the character of the nation would differ dramatically from what exists today." On Wednesday, Rector personally presented these views to a meeting of conservative Republican senators.

Rector’s assessment shows the immigration measure is a hard bill to love, even for senators who have been supporting it. The paper led to overwhelming support of Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s amendment cutting back 150,000 guest worker visas a year. While killer amendments to the bill have fallen short, the cause of liberalized immigration has lost rather than gained support, as the White House expected.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican floor manager, on Tuesday moved to kill the Bingaman amendment without further debate — a routine leadership device for getting rid of amendments. But all the Democrats were backing Bingaman, with the exception of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and two others. Only 22 Republican senators voted for Specter’s tabling motion. Eight of those Republicans, including Majority Leader Bill Frist and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, changed their votes when it became clear the amendment would pass.

Rector’s updated analysis, based on the Bingaman amendment, downgraded the two-decade estimate for immigrants to approximately 66 million under the reform. That remains a total that boggles the imagination. As a result, critical analyses of other aspects of the bill are getting a focused reception in the Senate.

— The bill supposedly would protect American workers by ensuring that new immigrants would not take away jobs. However, the bill’s definition of "United States Worker" includes temporary foreign guest workers, so the protection is meaningless.

— The bill extends the Davis-Bacon Act’s requirement for the payment of "prevailing wage" levels to all temporary guest workers. That puts them ahead of American workers, who have this protection only on federal job sites.

— Foreign guest farm workers, admitted under the bill, cannot be "terminated from employment by any employer . . . except for just cause." In contrast, American ag workers can be fired for any reason.

These little-known problems with the bill may not prevent Senate passage, but they add to the difficulty of reaching a Senate-House compromise. The White House strategy is to concentrate on closing the Mexican border, in the expectation that the guest worker provisions would then be more palatable to conservatives.

The problem with that approach, however, is that President Bush’s efforts to take control of the border have been unconvincing. Sources in the Department of Homeland Security say that his summoning of 6,000 National Guard troops, who cannot arrest anybody or discharge firearms, will release only 500 Border Patrol guards for actual duty on the border.

Bush adviser Karl Rove’s mission last Thursday was to convince a closed session of the hard-line House Republican Conference that progress really was being made on the border. Individual House members did not think he got the job done. These congressmen have been inundated in their home districts by anger from the conservative base that surpasses their past reactions over gun control, abortion and taxes.

The consensus on Capitol Hill is that Bush and Rove were blindsided by the immigration tide and are still foundering. The fear of America being undone by immigrants resembles nativist alarms in the country’s past history. The flawed bill that the president supports only spawns more of this sentiment.