It used to be, that when President Bush prepared to make a major move on domestic policy, conservatives awaited the proposal with hopeful anticipation. Six years into his presidency, we are now painfully aware that Mr. Bush eschews limited government and other bedrock conservative principles, and instead look to leaders like Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) — true sons of the Republican Revolution — for any hope of good government.
For this reason was Mac Johnson’s categorical rejection of Rep. Pence’s immigration plan less than 24 hours after its unveiling so remarkable. Within several days, border hawks from Rush Limbaugh to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.) weighed in with reactions ranging from healthy skepticism to implicit accusations of betrayal. Johnson went so far as to state that Pence’s Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act is dangerous precisely because it is offered by a genuine conservative, and therefore less likely to be subjected to scrutiny or attack than similar plans offered by liberal senators like Ted Kennedy or Harry Reid.
It’s true that conservatives lend greater credibility up front to a champion from their own ranks, and for good reason. Pence’s growing stature among movement conservatives — from the Beltway to the Blogosphere to Back Home — stems from the very fact that his legislative record purely reflects his stated principles. To recognize the damnable political realities that make meaningful border control difficult to achieve is not a sign of selling out, it’s a sign of sanity. The challenge is to combine real border security, national sovereignty, the rule of law and the American Dream with real political feasibility. Not politically feasible in the RINO sort of way, exempli gratia the path of least resistance to Senate Democrats, but in the way genuinely good legislation can be pushed through with the right combination of congressional maneuvering and direct appeals to the American public. As such, the Pence plan is perhaps the only "comprehensive" plan one can, and should, take seriously.
What did Pence propose in his lecture last week at the Heritage Foundation that sparked unrest from a handful of usual allies? Calling his offer the "real rational middle ground," the Republican Study Committee chairman offered a plan emphasizing border security, denial of amnesty, a temporary guest-worker program and tough enforcement of immigration and employment laws. Johnson rushes to denounce the real rational middle as the ground of moderates, but consider that Pence’s middle has always been principled conservatism.
Staking out strategic ground in any reconciliation with a then soon-to-be-passed Senate plan, Pence leads with a declaration that "we are far from reaching the kind of compromise that would make a legislative outcome possible in this session of Congress." With the Senate plan passing with bipartisan support and the favor of the president, this is an essential marker as pressure inevitably begins to mount on House Republican conferees to accept the most intolerable provisions of the package. The claim not only reiterates the House’s distinct preferences on the issue, but creates leverage through its implication that the House is prepared to delay final adoption of a bill until after this session in order to get its key provisions enshrined in law.
The Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act offers a positive alternative to the instant, permanent pardon for illegals presently in the country, relatively automatic path to citizenship and watered down border enforcement of the Senate bill. Instead, it emphasizes the superior border-protection elements of H.R. 4437 while offering closely monitored temporary worker status to illegal immigrants willing to return home and immigrate the right way: with permission and according to the law. The Act is admittedly gracious in this regard to those who entered illegally; indeed after twenty years tolerating and even promoting rampant lawlessness our elected, self-representative government now requires a limited degree of flexibility in solving the problem and ending permanently ending the untenable circumstances that led us here.
To hastily dismiss a return-and-re-immigrate concept as "amnesty-for-tourism," is to ignore the profoundly different effect self-deportation and lawful re-entry would have on future waves of would-be illegal immigrants. While the Senate plan promises to increase illegal immigration with the promise of amnesty upon arrival, there is comparatively little incentive to sneak into the country if you know you will have to return home just to have a shot at legalization. Reduction in illegal immigration is not merely a goal in and of itself, but isolates those who would still attempt to gain access to the homeland without our knowledge and permission, thereby enhancing an ability to defend the border against al Qaeda types and other undesirables.
The psychological effect of returning to one’s country of origin and immigrating to the United States of America under the auspices of the law for the first time would be a powerful one. The ennobling experience of acknowledging and literally reversing one’s wrongful action in order to do it the right way would offer immigrant workers a pristine respect and appreciation for their new home country and its laws. With the accompanying welcome into open society, this strategy would tangibly diminish one of the greatest problems associated with a mass illegal domestic population: the ghettoization of an entire ethnic and socioeconomic class, or the balkanization of America. Assimilation not only provides benefits to those who choose to Americanize — as Pence’s own Irish Catholic family did in the course of three short generations — it is a real and precious asset that reaffirms and strengthens this Union based on shared ideals.
A frequent obstacle to sensible immigration and border security reform is the tendency of nearly every stakeholder to hold hostage the one supposedly agreed-upon necessity — border security — to their own narrow interests. The ransom demand is typically wholesale amnesty by the corporate right and cultural left, or downright economic protectionism and isolationism by the economic left and social right. Rather than take hostages, Pence’s proposal outlines principles all conservatives agree on, including absolute border security and free markets (in this case, the labor market). It is in this sense that the Act represents the real rational middle ground, and a way forward.
To scrutinize a reform plan billed as "comprehensive" is not only fair but critically necessary. Conservatives are rightly skeptical of anything billed as such, because we know the historical record of such plans: concrete policy concessions in the form of amnesty to the anti-borders crowd, and little more than cheap rhetoric for the vast constituency of law-abiding, pro-borders Americans as the enforcement measures of the bills became ignored or outright violated by employers, federal agencies and state governments alike. The Pence approach withstands scrutiny with its concrete steps to ensure border security and actual teeth to enforce immigration and employment law. Calling the President’s move to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the border "not enough," the Pence plan mandates calls for more boots on the ground, 700 new miles of physical barriers, additional port of entry inspectors and increased deployment of technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles. Given the current nonexistent state of border security and the very real de-facto amnesty for illegals presently in effect, the net changes put into effect by the Pence plan are ones conservatives can universally rally around.
Not content to stand on a soapbox and offer principled, rhetorical jabs at the political establishment, the statesman from Indiana has proposed a plan that promises to move the debate over illegal immigration and broken borders forward — and rightward. As the national debate continues its inevitable move towards a legislative resolution (that’s what legislatures do, they legislate), the extent to which conservatives principles shape the outcome of that debate rests squarely on the shoulders of sane and serious conservatives: sane enough to recognize reality — serious enough to do something about it.