Mitt Romney hammered Newt Gingrich for his amnesty-flavored musings on illegal immigration during the CNN debate Tuesday night. Gingrich returned the favor by digging up a 2007 video clip in which Romney said the 12 million illegal aliens currently in the United States “should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship.”
Michele Bachmann’s campaign promptly dug up some of Gingrich’s thoughts on amnesty from the Bush years, when he was among the authors of a “Conservative Statement of Principles on Immigration”:
President Bush has proposed a new legal path to work in the U.S. through a temporary worker program that will match willing workers with willing employers. We applaud the president and believe his approach holds great promise to reduce illegal immigration and establish a humane, orderly, and economically sensible approach to migration that will aid homeland security and free up border-security assets to focus on genuine threats. The president has shown courage by calling on Congress to place reality over rhetoric and recognize that those already working here outside the law are unlikely to leave. Congress can fulfill its role by establishing sufficient increases in legal immigration and paths to permanent residence to enable more workers to stay, assimilate, and become part of America.
This is spiritually consistent with what Gingrich is saying now, but it makes hair-splitting between “paths to citizenship” and “amnesty” rather difficult.
Of all the issues facing Americans in this election year, illegal immigration didn’t seem like it would be the hill every front-runner died upon. This is not to trivialize the importance of the issue. It just didn’t seem like it would become the battleground, over and over again. From Texas schools to Mitt Romney’s lawn, the battle has raged on.
There are several reasons this is such a perennially hot topic. It touches on some powerful issues of compassion, fairness, and responsibility, along with the way today’s citizens are always being held responsible for government’s past mistakes.
To take the latter point first, the Bachmann campaign puts it like this:
The last time our immigration laws were overhauled was in 1986, with amnesty granted to three million illegal immigrants. At the time, Americans voters were led to believe this would solve our immigration problem. However, since then the number of illegal immigrants has quadrupled (by conservative estimates). Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past, we must do everything we can to secure our nation’s borders. We need to push for more Border Patrol officers, and stand by them. We need to complete the border fence across the entire US-Mexico frontier, make E-Verify mandatory, and eliminate funding for states and cities that knowingly harbor illegal immigrants.
(Emphasis mine.) We were told the last amnesty deal would solve the problem. Now there are twice as many illegals, and we’re told we have no choice but to cook up another amnesty deal. What are you going to do, round up 12 million people and shovel them across the border? Yesterday’s government failure becomes tomorrow’s inescapable destiny. We hear this argument in many areas beyond illegal immigration.
One of the ways our immigration debate is distorted is through the expectation of instantaneous success… or, more to the point, the assessment of instantaneous failure. Our choices are either immediate deportation of 12 million souls, or blanket amnesty for immigration scofflaws, with a stopwatch used to measure the progress of either approach.
Why don’t we try the kind of common-sense enforcement proposals that prompt Eric Holder to sue the daylights out of any state that passes them, and see where that gets us? Maybe the remainder of the illegal population will be easier to deal with, from the standpoints of both fairness and humanity, once there aren’t 12 million of them anymore. Can we at least try cleaning out the drunk-driving tax-evading document forgers before we declare the problem insoluble?
The imperative to write off border security and immigration enforcement as impossible, after the kind of half-hearted attempts we’ve witnessed from the federal government, raises the hackles of law-abiding citizens who are being micro-regulated within an inch of their lives. Will the illegal aliens who get busted for failing to comply with ObamaCare be deported? Somehow our compassionate mega-State seems comfortable with monitoring, controlling, and punishing far larger populations than those 12 million illegals… when it really wants to.
Law-abiding citizens are also subjected to many lectures about the need to “pay their fair share” and provide benefits for the common good. Supposedly everyone is contributing to provide the collective benefits of government – at various finely-tuned “progressive” levels, of course. Why should they be sanguine about the prospect of a large group barging into the system, ignoring laws it doesn’t like, and digging into the government benefit buffet? When do they “pay their fair share?”
Gingrich’s ideas for assimilation of the illegal population are meant to address this problem by bringing them into the fold, which seems like a rather large strain on the lower echelons of our currently weak, high-unemployment economy. Assuming that a change of leadership in Washington gets the economy humming again, and there are plenty of jobs for everyone, we’re still left with the question of a population that has made itself rather challenging to assimilate, in no small part due to its insistence on linguistic separation.
Americans, including legal immigrants who worked hard for citizenship, were never given an opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted this new population brought across the border. There is an unsurprising resistance to the notion that they have absolutely nothing to say about whether it remains. Legal citizens really dislike being told that insistence on the proper meaning of “citizenship” is tantamount to heartlessness. Rick Perry did it clumsily, and it ruined his candidacy. Gingrich did it more carefully on Tuesday night:
I don’t see how the — the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.
He’s ready to take the heat from you inhumane nativists for doing the right thing, so vote for him!
Finally, the Gingrich immigration plan is problematic because it’s another example of high-minded sentiments without concrete policy to back them up, offered to voters who have had their fill of “pass this bill to find out what’s in it” legislation. A nebulous “second-class pseudo-citizenship” administered by community boards is not going to pass legal muster. The Supreme Court wouldn’t even bother to hand down a decision. They’d just use a buzzer, or maybe a gong.
It’s particularly disappointing to hear a policy wonk like Gingrich, who cranks out books and white papers with industrial speed, address such an important issue through vague generalities. It’s unthinkable to deport people who have lived in the United States without breaking any other laws for 25 years? Okay, what about 24? 20? Five? Is Gingrich really going to propose a law that says you just have to get across the border and occupy a patch of U.S. soil for X number of years in order to get on the fast track to citizenship? Why wouldn’t that be a “magnet” for more border crossings?
The hard truth is that there is no simple, universally fair “grand solution” to the illegal immigrant problem. It is a great mountain of mistakes and transgressions that has been building up for decades. No one is going to “solve” it with a five-page plan. It’s important to see some real success at closing up the border, and reducing the illegal population through serious enforcement, before asking legal citizens for one more round of large-scale indulgence.