The Biggest Problem with an Amnesty Is the *Next* Amnesty
Brother Robinson pitches Mickey Kaus's approach to an amnesty, and is basically on the right track. As distasteful as it is, an illegal-alien amnesty -- like a tax amnesty or parking ticket amnesty -- can be a way to clear away the results of past mistakes and make a fresh start.
But Mickey identifies the key problem: The public doesn't trust the political class to actually make such a fresh start and commit itself to enforcing the law. A poll we did recently found that 70 percent of likely voters had little or no confidence that immigration laws would be enforced after an amnesty, including 54 percent of Democrats and a whopping 88 percent of Republicans.
And that trust gap is well founded. Over at the Corner I linked to excerpts of the debate leading up to the 1986 amnesty. Chuck Schumer, who as a member of the House at the time was a key player in putting together the final deal, said:
What is it not? It is not millions of people cascading across the border. . . . It is not welfare benefits for those folks immediately. It is not . . . immediately, wives, husbands, children would come across.
The "immediately" was cute, but all these things all did end up happening. Jim Sensenbrenner also spoke up, earning kudos for predicting that the amnesty would happen but the promised enforcement would not.
Does anyone think a similar deal today wouldn't turn out the same? Any Republican pushing an amnesty bill now is saying that he trusts Barack Obama to faithfully execute the immigration laws. In fact, as Charles Krauthammer said Monday night, Obama is trying to shove legalization without enforcement "down everybody's throat." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said explicitly last week that amnesty should not be tied to the achievement of any enforcement benchmarks (and an underling acknowledged -- to the astonishment of the members of a congressional panel -- that DHS has no means of measuring the security of the border anyway).
This is why I think Mickey's basic approach needs a few tweaks. To be fair, the excerpt Peter quoted was from a podcast, where you don't have a chance to fully elaborate and qualify your ideas. (During that same podcast, I was standing atop a hill overlooking the Rio Grande, pacing around with my cell phone, so I have no idea if I was even coherent.)
One qualification I'd make is that I don't see how you can promise a future amnesty in legislation, as Mickey suggests, without actually guaranteeing it with the kind of phony "triggers" the Gang of Eight is talking about. Instead, the promise to take up amnesty down the road (after the necessary immigration security infrastructure is in place and survives legal challenge) is a political statement, not a statutory one. It can be an important political statement, and one that could resonate with voters, but it shouldn't be written into law.
The upshot is this: The political class has to earn the right to enact an amnesty. When the public sees that employers aren't able to hire illegal aliens, and those that do are genuinely punished; that people who come on visas aren't able to simply remain illegally with impunity; that the Border Patrol, which is currently smaller than the NYPD, is able to prevent the kind of surge in illegal immigration we're now seeing in South Texas; only then could an amnesty become a viable option, both politically and in a policy sense.
There's an old Vulcan proverb: "Only Nixon could go to China" (alternatively, "only Kirk could go to Qo'noS"). By the same token, it will take an immigration hawk to restore public trust in the political class's commitment to enforcing American sovereignty. With that restored trust will come increased flexibility in amnestying established illegal aliens. But the first order of business has to be to kill the current amnesty push. If it passes, in whatever form, we will be back here in a decade debating the next amnesty.