Q&A: Sensenbrenner Sees New Battles Looming on Immigration

On December 20, Human Events Editor Terence Jeffrey interviewed 2006 Human Events Man of the Year Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who served the last six years as House Judiciary Chairman.

Sensenbrenner reviewed the battles fought in the last Congress over immigration reform and pointed to battles likely to be waged in the next. The Republican Party, he argued, needs to stick to its principles on both fiscal and social issues.

You had a few struggles in the course of the last year or so with the White House over immigration and border security issues. As I recall, these included what was going to happen with the REAL ID bill, funding for Border Patrol and ICE agents and detention beds, and, of course, your immigration reform bill versus the President’s guest-worker/amnesty proposal. You had REAL ID, originally, in the intelligence reform bill. Tell me what happened on REAL ID?

What happened on REAL ID is that the Republicans in the House of Representatives were absolutely insistent that we implement that part of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations that said we needed to have secure driver’s licenses. The 9/11 Commission hit the nail on the head when it said that driver’s licenses are breeder documents for other types of identification, and that if we do not have the document from which other forms of identification flow be absolutely secure and state who the person really is, then we will have more and more IDs being used for criminal and terrorist purposes.

That’s why REAL ID was so important.

The way you structured that bill was respectful of state rights. It didn’t insist that the states absolutely had to do what the federal government demanded.

No, that was to get around a constitutional challenge that the states would have filed against the REAL ID Act. What REAL ID said is that if you were to use a state driver’s license for federal purposes, such as getting on an airplane or getting into a federal courthouse, then it had to meet the standards that were set forth in the law. If a state decided not to do that, then their driver’s licenses would not be valid for federal purposes and people who wished to board an airplane or get into a federal courthouse would have to get a passport or some other type of identification that showed who they were and what their nationality was.

So, essentially you gave the states a choice: They could continue giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, if they wished, or they could have a secure driver’s license that the federal government would accept for its own purposes.

That is correct, and I would expect the states to make a major run at repealing or weakening the REAL ID law now that the Democrats are in control of both houses of Congress.

Despite the commonsensical nature of this provision, you didn’t have an easy time getting it through the Congress and signed by the President.

No, there was a lot of resistance. The strategy that I utilized was to have the House vote on the REAL ID Act in early 2005. That set a marker. Then the REAL ID Act was folded into a supplemental appropriations bill, which was the first must-pass legislation a year ago. That’s how it became law.

You believe the Democrats might actually try to roll it back?

I received a letter from my state’s department of transportation predicting gloom and doom when the REAL ID Act kicks in in May of 2008. There is no reason why that should happen. Perhaps the REAL ID was a jolt to the state of Wisconsin, which was one of eight states that continued to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants before REAL ID was passed.

Would you call on President Bush to veto any effort by the Democrats to roll back REAL ID?

Absolutely. The Democrats cannot roll back and repeal REAL AD if they are sincere in implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations. Remember, 15 out of the 19 hijackers on September 11 had expired visas in their foreign passports. They used driver’s licenses to get on the planes to hijack. Even when we had more lax security prior to 9/11, a valid driver’s license would not raise questions, whereas a Middle Eastern passport with an expired visa would.

And, of course, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is claiming she wants to have all of the 9/11 Commission recommendations filled.

If Speaker Pelosi is sincere on fulfilling the 9/11 Commission recommendations, then she should come out strongly in opposition to repealing one that has already been enacted into law.

You got authorization for doubling the border patrol, tripling the number of ICE agents, and tripling the number of detention beds for illegal aliens in the intelligence reform bill, but then there was some problem actually getting the money appropriated to get those things done.

The authorization legislation was very important to set a marker that Congress was serious about dealing with many of the issues that are causing the flood of illegal immigrants coming into our country. What I can say is that we succeeded in increasing the Homeland Security appropriations bill over $2 billion above what the President recommended for fiscal year 2007. That includes more Border Patrol Agents. It includes more detention beds. It also includes the payment for next year’s construction of fencing along the Southern border.

So, are we well on the track now to getting those increases in Border Patrol, ICE agents and detention beds actually put in place?

That is correct. But what was done in the Homeland Security appropriations bill that was signed in early October by the President funds the increases for the current fiscal year, and the Border Patrol only has the capacity to train so many agents per year, and we are up to the max on that. It will be up to the Congress next year to continue on the road to making those promises fulfilled. If they do not fund these issues, then the new Congress will go back on promises that the Republican Congress made and funded during 2006.

So, this will be a marker both for the Democratic Congress and the White House?

Yes, both.

The other issue was your immigration reform plan that passed the House in December 2005, and which did not include a guest-worker/amnesty plan. Can you explain the basic strategy of your plan? How did it envision dealing with the problem of all these illegal immigrants in the United States?

I make no apologies for bringing the issue of illegal immigration on the national agenda. This is an issue that has been festering for over 50 years and getting worse by the day. I took a lot of hits from the business community, from the churches and from the political elites for the border-security-only bill that the House passed last December. They completely ignore what is needed to have an effective immigration-reform proposal.

I go back to a commission headed by Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame University, who by his own admission is no conservative. He was named head of a blue ribbon commission by President Carter in 1979. The commission reported in 1981 to President Reagan, and Father Hesburgh stated that we must secure the border first, otherwise no immigration reform proposal will be successful. The commission came out against any form of amnesty until the border was secured because amnesty would only encourage more illegal immigrants to cross the border.

Father Hesburgh was right, and the people who have been criticizing the secure-the-border-first approach, which I introduced and the House of Representatives passed, conveniently ignore what Father Hesburgh said 25 years ago.

Had Father Hesburgh been listened to, we would not be discussing this issue today.

Interestingly, Ed Meese, who was, of course, President Reagan’s attorney general and one of his closest personal advisors, recently wrote in Human Events, and before that wrote in the New York Times, that the Reagan amnesty, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, was a mistake, and that history has proven it to be a mistake. Do you share that view?

I voted against Simpson-Mazzoli in 1986 and said at the time that this would make the situation worse. I asked Mr. Meese at a subcommittee hearing while the bill was being considered what would happen if we gave the amnesty and didn’t secure the border. Meese said he didn’t know what would happen because people who received amnesty would price themselves out of the market and there would be a flood of cheaper labor coming across the border to take those jobs. And that’s what happened. Meese was right. It was a mistake.

The comprehensive bill that McCain and Kennedy introduced in the Senate, I can’t say is Simpson-Mazzoli light, it is Simpson-Mazzoli heavy. I think the Congress and the American people should realize that the old adage of “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” might be coming true.

There is a provision in the Senate bill that I think the public might not be broadly aware of. It would provide an amnesty to employers that have been systematically hiring illegal aliens over the years. I know your bill had strong worksite enforcement provisions. Some of the reporting that I have done myself has shown that there are major employers in the United States who hire thousands of illegal aliens and then file false Social Security numbers on the W-2 forms they send on their behalf to the federal government. Isn’t that a scandal? Do you believe the government is making an adequate and conscientious effort to enforce the immigration laws at the worksite?

The answer to that question is no. What we need to do is three things: First of all, we need more ICE agents to conduct raids at worksites. The immigration bill that I sponsored does that. There has been an increased number of ICE agents funded in the Homeland Security bill.

The second thing we need to do is increase the fines so that they actually act as a deterrent. The current fine is $250 per illegal immigrant worker per day. The House passed bill increases that to $5,000. A $250 fine is part of the cost of doing business. If somebody gets busted hiring 500 illegal immigrant workers under the House-passed bill, that’s a $25-million fine. That would make front-page news everywhere in the country, and would start acting as a deterrent. We wouldn’t get people to stop at red lights if the fine was $2 and no points.

Do you think that one of the reasons politicians in Washington, D.C., have been unwilling to go forward with this kind of worksite enforcement—and for some to actually back the kind of amnesty Sen. McCain has proposed for employers that hire illegal aliens—is because of the lobby the corporations that are exploiting this sort of labor have in this town?

Well, there has been an unholy alliance between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lot of the church groups, and some of the groups that actively lobby for amnesty for illegal immigrants. The week after my bill passed in December of last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce invited Mexican Foreign Minister Luis-Ernesto Derbez to a forum in Chicago, where he strongly criticized me and my bill in the most personal of terms. This ended up becoming an issue in the Mexican presidential election, which was held in July.

There is no question in my mind that the people who are benefiting from cheap labor want to have that continue, and they will stop at nothing to make sure there is not an effective law that enforces the employer sanctions that were a part of Simpson-Mazzoli and flushes the fake IDs out of the system.

I think the thing Congress has to do next is to pass the Social Security verification system that was contained in HR 4437. That would provide a secure database where someone’s Social Security number and name could be verified. That would mean that employers would be out of the business of trying to figure out if an applicant for a job was presenting a fake Social Security number or a fake ID.

This morning President Bush said again he wants a “comprehensive” immigration-reform plan, which I take as a code word for saying he wants his illegal-alien amnesty. Are people who have your view in Congress going to be able to stop the President from forming a coalition with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in getting a bill like that through?

What I can say is that as a result of what the House did, and the massive demonstrations of people waving Mexican flags, this is not an inside-the-Beltway issue anymore. It is a national issue, and the word “amnesty” is literally the third-rail in the debate on immigration. I think it will be much more difficult for either house of Congress to pass an amnesty bill as a result of the American public’s literally being punched in the nose by those demonstrations that were held last spring.

And they can count on Jim Sensenbrenner’s being right in the front of the fight for them?

Jim Sensenbrenner is not going to go away, even though we are in the minority. This is an issue where I think the American public has connected with the legislation that I introduced and the House passed. Everywhere I go in this country people come up and introduce themselves to me and say that I am right-on on the immigration issue.

From my perspective, you are unusual in that you are someone who has spent almost 30 years in Congress but has stuck to his guns on key conservative issues. For example, the National Taxpayers Union has consistently ranked you in the Top 10 of fiscal conservatives in the House. One of the criticisms that conservatives outside of elective office made of the Republican majority, which unfortunately just lost the election, is that it abandoned its principles on spending and limited government. Do you agree with that criticism?

In many respects, the criticism is valid. What I can say, however, is that if you match what the Republicans who had the responsibility to govern passed compared to all the amendments that the Democrats offered, there would be a much higher deficit or higher taxes or both if all the Democrat amendments had been adopted. It is going to be very hard for the Democrats to grab the mantle of fiscal responsibility and pay for their spending priorities unless what they mean by fiscal responsibility is massive tax increases, either through allowing the President’s tax cuts to expire, or passing legislation to make them expire earlier, or increasing rates.

Another criticism many conservatives make is that when Bill Clinton was President, the Republican majority did a good job of fighting big government because they were fighting Bill Clinton. They reined in his tendency to want to expand government and the welfare state. But when President Bush came in, he seduced the Republican majority away from its limited-government principles, and the Republicans basically caved in to Bush and gave him more government.

Well, let me say that I voted against the No Child Left Behind bill, and was one of 33 Republicans who did that, because I saw it as a huge unfunded mandate, and that those who supported the legislation essentially over-promised what the federal government could deliver. I am a believer in local control, particularly in education, and I think I can say, considering the way No Child has worked out, that it was not a good idea. I even hear from teachers union advocates that this was not a good idea, even though they supported the bill when it passed.

Do you support reversing it?


I have to say, honestly, that one of the few votes you made in recent years that I disagreed with was on the Medicare prescription-drug bill. Are you happy with that program? Or do you think it should be revisited?

When the Medicare prescription-drug bill was passed, everybody knew that this was a work in progress. What I can say is that Medicare has to be brought up to date from what it was when it was passed in the mid-1960s, during the Great Society. In the 1960s, basically, medicine was putting people in the hospital to die rather than aggressively screening and treating of conditions, before they become acute, with medication. So, I think that a prescription-drug component in Medicare as a means of weaning people off of expensive hospital stays paid for by the taxpayers was a step in the right direction. And there were certain changes made in the Medicare program to try to accomplish that.

It seems to me that as we continue to fine tune the prescription-drug component of Medicare we ought to look at the fact that other parts of traditional Medicare are going to have to be changed to reflect the way medicine has changed.

The changes in the way medicine has been practiced in the last 40 years have given all of us a longer life expectancy and a better quality of life.

One of the perennial debates we have in the Republican Party is that people say it is too conservative on social issues, and that its views on things like marriage and abortion limit the scope of the party. We are going into another presidential campaign where this is certainly going to be part of the debate. You have a 100% voting record with National Right to Life. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, you brought through a lot of pro-life legislation and things like the Marriage Protection Act, which would have limited the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act. How important do you think it is for the Republican Party to remain true to its principles on these issues?

I think it is vitally important to do that. In my state, we had a referendum on banning gay marriage. Fifty-nine percent of the people in Wisconsin voted for that referendum, including most of the so-called Reagan Democrats, who unfortunately voted almost straight Democrat after they voted yes on the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

It seems to me that on issues like this, trying to equivocate gets both sides mad. For a party, or for individual candidates for office, or for incumbent officeholders, to abandon their principles on this and start saying things that they really don’t believe merely confuses the voters and makes them more cynical about the political process.

You come from what could be the swing state in the 2008 election. President Bush almost won it. It’s a state that could go Republican. As you say, it’s a state with a lot of Reagan Democrats. Of course, in national elections the electoral base of the Republican Party is now in the famous Red States, which are largely in the Midwest and South. Do you believe that if the Republican Party tore up its planks on pro-life and marriage and nominated someone for President who basically opposed the Midwestern, Middle American values on those issues that they would have a chance of winning an Electoral College victory?

They would have a very hard time getting the Republican base to turn out and vote for them.

Now, if you look at Bush’s two successful elections in 2000 and 2004, what Karl Rove did was force the Republicans nationwide to identify Republican voters either by historical voting patterns or by stands on the issues—and then turn them out. Now, I did that in my race, and even though my percentage went down from 2004 to 2006, I still got more votes than any other congressman of either party elected by district in the country. We identified our voters and turned them out. The Rove plan worked. But the Rove plan will work only if the voters that you contact believe in the party’s stand and its candidate’s stand on the issues.