New Life For Immigration Reform

Is it possible that the House and Senate will agree on an immigration bill? For most of June, the answer seemed to be no.

The House Republican leadership announced it would not appoint members of a conference committee to reconcile the border-security-only bill the House passed in December with the comprehensive (border-security-plus-guest-worker-plus-legalization) bill passed by the Senate in May. Instead, House Republicans would hold hearings around the country in August — hearings expected to be forums for complaints about illegal immigration and demands that border control be strengthened before any legalization or guest-worker program is passed.

Meanwhile, the Senate seemed likely to stick with the approach taken by a bipartisan, mostly Democratic majority that rejected limiting the bill to border security. Deadlock seemed likely.

But three developments last week may be reviving the chance immigration will be passed. The first was the renomination of Utah Rep. Chris Cannon in the Republican primary on June 27. Cannon has supported guest-worker legislation and measures to allow children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition to state colleges and universities. His opponent, John Jacob, spent thousands of his own dollars to attack Cannon for supporting "amnesty" and actually led Cannon in the Republican convention, where incumbents are usually renominated routinely. Polls showed the race close. But Cannon won 56% to 44%, down just slightly from his 58% to 42% margin over an immigration opponent who spent much less money two years ago.

If Cannon had lost, House Republicans surely would have panicked and stonewalled any approach but border-security-only. But his victory — and the fact that he ran ads with endorsements from George W. Bush, who supports a comprehensive bill — indicates that his positions are not political death, even in a district that went 77% to 20% Republican in the 2004 presidential election.

The second development was an interview of Sen. Arlen Specter in The Washington Times on June 27. Specter is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and supported the Senate bill. He would be the lead Senate voice in any conference committee. Specter still insists that the Senate will only accept a comprehensive bill. But he did concede that he might accept a version that made guest-worker and legalization programs contingent on concrete achievements in border security.

"It may be down the line that we will come to some terms on a timetable, with border security first and employment verification first," he told the Times. Enforcement has "got to be in place firmly. But I don’t think the Senate will pass a bill that’s limited to that," adding that decisions on a timetable would "come in very hard-fisted negotiations at the end of the rainbow."

The third development was the meeting in the White House of Rep. Mike Pence with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on June 28. Pence, chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, has advanced a guest-worker plan based on that of Colorado rancher Helen Krieble, which would allow workers to apply in their home countries to "Ellis Island centers" run by private firms, which would match them with jobs from employers in the United States. It’s an attempt to get around the current cumbersome green card bureaucracy. Guest-worker slots would not lead to citizenship, but would legalize workers who comply. The Pence program could be phased in after a period in which border security is strengthened.

The Cannon victory, the Specter concession and the Pence plan point toward a possible compromise that could conceivably be adopted by a conference committee and win majorities in both houses. In the process, they direct the attention of those on all sides of this issue to the practical, concrete realities of American life. If advocates of border-security-and-employer-sanctions get their way, and there are high-tech steps to close the sieve on the border and create a forgery-proof identification card system, then what happens to the 7 million or so illegal immigrants who are currently working in the United States? Presumably they go away — but in the process, we lose a labor force that our economy needs to maximize production. If advocates of a comprehensive bill get their way, and we don’t have high-tech ID, then presumably we’ll still have millions of illegals in our midst.

It is surely not beyond our technological capabilities to secure the border and to provide legal worker identification, at least if we subcontract these tasks to the private sector, which is so much better at these things than government. Neither the House nor the Senate bill seems likely to achieve those goals. So it’s good to note that there’s a chance, maybe only a small chance, that a conference committee can come up with a bill that does.