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May 17, 2006
Immigration Center Advances

The Senate continued to follow George Bush in a relentless effort to the center on immigration today, passing amendments that fund a border fence, lock out illegals with one felony or three misdemeanor convictions, and provide for guest-worker and citizenship programs. The amendments make it more likely that the House will compromise in conference to deliver the comprehensive reform plan that Bush has demanded, although James Sensenbrenner has announced his opposition already:

The Senate agreed to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship and backed construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border Wednesday, but prospects of election-year legislation clearing Congress were clouded by a withering attack against President Bush by a prominent House Republican.

"Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year. ...

[Senator David] Vitter led the drive to strip from the bill a provision giving an eventual chance at citizenship to illegal immigrants who have been in the country more than two years. His attempt failed, 66-33, at the hands of a bipartisan coalition, and the provision survived. In all, 41 Democrats joined with 24 Republicans and one independent to turn back the proposal. Opponents included the leaders of both parties, Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Harry Reid, D-Nev. Thirty-one Republicans and two Democrats supported Vitter's amendment.

The vote to build what supporters called a "real fence" as distinct from the virtual fence already incorporated in the legislation was 83-16. It marked the first significant victory for conservatives eager to leave their stamp on a measure that looks increasingly like it is headed toward Senate passage.

While the set of amendments that passed appear to provide better news for conservatives than we may have imagined, the loss on the Vitter amendment will rankle. It attempted to gut the Senate proposal for comprehensive reform by making any kind of normalization impossible. The president made clear his support for some kind of path to citizenship for those who have lived an otherwise unremarkable life in the US, and the leadership in both parties apparently want to support the White House on this provision. The no-amnesty caucus in the Senate turned out to be so low that they could not even support a filibuster.

This touched off a debate on the meaning of amnesty, a silly and distracting argument that inevitably has no real bearing on the issue at hand. After all, neither side has come to its position on normalization because of the definition of "amnesty" they found in Webster's. Yet today we had Vitter, Chuck Hagel, and John McCain issue bitter broadsides at each other over the definition of the word, and the media lapped it up.

Is the new plan amnesty? Since those who have broken the law by entering the country illegally will never have to face charges for their offense, amnesty would be the proper word. That, however, does not make the Hagel-Martinez bill a duplicate of Simpson-Mazzoli. It's not a simple waiving of all consequences. The plan for the illegals already in the US would call for payment of a fine and all back taxes, as well as a requirement to learn English and wait several years to complete their processing.

The question isn't whether the plan amounts to amnesty, as if that is some sort of magical label that makes everything it touches dirty. It's whether the punishment fits the crime and whether it serves as a deterrent to further crime. Rational people can disagree on the former, but nothing we have done thus far has served as any kind of deterrent. That's why we need a security fence -- because the only option we have left to significantly reduce the flow of illegals is a physical barrier and increased enforcement on the frontier.

Just as we cannot hope to beat terrorism by playing defense, waiting until we get attacked before attempting to stop the terrorists, we cannot sit back and play defense against the waves of illegal immigration. If we wait until they show up in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, and Minneapolis, it's far too late. The only options for identifying and collecting the violators are the use of draconian measures for government control of marketplaces and identity papers that civil libertarians are correct to dread. In order to enjoy the open and free society that we desire, we have to control the borders of this nation to stop anyone from entering illegally.

However, we still must face the fact that we have utterly failed in this effort until now, and more importantly, we are a nation at war. For our own national security, we need to identify the people who have crossed illegally into our country as soon as possible. Waiting years for the numbers to decrease to a level where we can hope to perform effective investigations of illegal aliens isn't really an option. The US has to provide some incentive for the twelve million of illegal status to self-identify in a short period of time, accept identification papers while they work towards normalization, so that we can then focus on those who truly wish us harm.

If we were not at war, if terrorists did not target us for attack, this would not be necessary. However, we need to proceed realistically and figure out a method in which we can deliver some punishment for illegally entering the country while incentivizing the illegals to declare themselves -- and that is predicated on border security and much more robust enforcement.

Does the Senate plan achieve those purposes? The particulars could use some work, but the concepts suffice. I think the Senate should have kept the Isakson amendment that required a certification of border security before enacting the rest of the reform plan, but perhaps the conference committee will develop that. Whether or not one wants to label a program "amnesty" or "normalization" makes no ultimate difference. We need to determine whether the plan meets the strategic needs of the United States and can be implemented effectively. We also need to recognize political reality and get the best deal we can get while we still control Congress and the White House.

UPDATE: Tony Blankley at the Washington Times has a similar outlook. If trading in the de facto guest worker program we have now for a regulated guest worker program gets us the robust border security we need, then we should take that deal. I would add that we should jettison the temp-worker proposal altogether as an enforcement boondoggle -- what do we do when the workers won't leave, and how much will it cost to enforce those regulations? -- and simply settle for the path to citizenship instead.

UPDATE II: Gary Gross says that calling Hagel-Martinez an amnesty program isn't intellectually supportable.

UPDATE III: A correction: the border-first amendment was the Isakson amendment, not the Sessions amendment. I've corrected the text. (h/t: Dutch in Atlanta)

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 17, 2006 5:49 PM

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» Senate Approves 370 Miles Of Border Fence from Diggers Realm
The Senate today approved 370 miles of border fence into their Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act that is currently heading towards a vote. The downside is that the planned amnesty of millions of illegal aliens is still being considered under the... [Read More]

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» Senate Approves 370-mile Fence On Southern Border from Hyscience
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Tracked on May 18, 2006 9:50 AM


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