Why the Immigration Bill Died in the Senate -- and Will Keep Dying

Last Friday, a small but vocal group of hardliners hijacked the national debate over immigration and, in all likelihood, derailed the effort to reform a system that Americans from across the political spectrum agree is dysfunctional. (George Bush has said he hopes to restart the negotiations, but most observers agree that a deal is not likely.)

The bill -- which began as a compromise that everyone hated -- was killed in the Senate, smothered under the weight of a flurry of unpopular amendments offered up by a small group of Senators, including some of the chamber's most reactionary, before the national debate was even under way.

The hardliners shot down the compromise before negotiations that might have made the bill widely palatable had begun in earnest, and they did so over the objections of the leading voices within their party and the White House. If the measure had gotten past them, hardliners in the House were standing by; The Hill reported last week that House conservatives were "ready to stop the Senate immigration bill in its tracks with a potent procedural weapon should the contentious measure win passage in the upper chamber."

The compromise's unexpectedly swift destruction reveals a little-discussed aspect of the immigration debate today: It is not an epic battle between America's two major parties, and it's not a grand clash of political ideologies. It is a debate between a supermajority of pragmatic Americans in both parties who favor a comprehensive approach to immigration control, and a small but extremely loud group of immigration hardliners who want a predominantly punitive approach to the issue -- with a focus on "enforcement" first and foremost -- and have proven that they will do whatever they can to obstruct any bill that allows undocumented workers who meet certain conditions to come out of the shadows.

Since round two of the immigration fight began, the hardliners' rallying cry has been "no bill is better than a bad bill." By last week, polls showed that many Americans, including some prominent progressives, agreed. But getting no bill means that millions of undocumented workers will continue to live on the margins. It means a patchwork of mean-spirited and ultimately pointless English-only laws and occupancy rules will be passed at the state and local levels, while a small number of communities continue to bear the costs of immigration for everyone, without any federal help, and it means keeping an ugly issue on the table for another year or two (or ten). It means more of the status quo; a few photo-op raids on employers, a few hundred million tax dollars going to Bush cronies to install some high-tech gizmos on the border and more Americans losing faith in D.C.'s ability to tackle problems -- the kind of "failure of government" stories that always help the right wing in the end.

Unfortunately, the media has decided that all sides were equally to blame for the death of immigration reform in this congress. The reality is very different.

Not as divided as many believe

As sharply divided as Americans are on the specifics of dealing with immigration, there's significant agreement on the broad principles of comprehensive reform. That fact is obscured by the intensity of the immigration hardliners' rhetoric and by the difficulty many progressives have internalizing the fact that a majority of Americans support a progressive approach to immigration control.

That's what the data show. For two years the issue has been subject to the most extreme demagoguery. Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs have claimed repeatedly and wrongly that illegal immigrants are violent felons who take American jobs and depress American wages. For the past two years Michelle Malkin has argued that immigration is a Mexican plot to retake the Southwest. While interviewing Sen. John McCain last month, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said that the latest immigration bill was supported only by "the far left" in order "to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, of which you're a part, and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have." "It's an invasion!" they cry.

As a whole, Americans have been beaten over the head with this invective for years, but they're not buying it. Whether on the left or right, polls show that while most people are indeed concerned about immigration, most approach the issue pragmatically, regardless of what policies they might want to see in a perfect world.

A CNN poll taken early in May (PDF) found that 80 percent -- four in five -- favor "creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay in this country and apply for U.S. citizenship if they had a job and paid back taxes." Less than half of respondents favored "building a 700-mile-long fence on the border with Mexico." (Making those 46 percent happy was part of the comprehensive reform proposal agreed in the Senate last year and in the draft "compromise" that was shot down last week. This year's draft called for an increase in the number of border patrol personnel and "the installation of at least 200 miles of vehicle barriers; 370 miles of fencing; and 70 ground-based radar and camera towers along the southern border, and four unmanned aerial vehicles.")

A Gallup poll from mid-April found that only one in five wanted immigrants already in the country to leave forever or to leave and return as temporary guest workers without the possibility of citizenship. Again, eight in 10 favored granting immigrants a path to citizenship if they "meet certain requirements over a period of time." A New York Times/ CBS poll that was taken after details of the new compromise were released in mid-May found that two-thirds of respondents said, "Illegal immigrants who have a good employment history and no criminal record should gain legal status as the bill proposes: by paying at least $5,000 in fines and fees and receiving a renewable four-year visa."

The interesting finding in many of these polls is how similar sentiment towards immigration is among majorities of both parties. As the Times noted, "differences are not great between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, with 66 percent of Republicans in the poll favoring the legalization proposal, as well as 72 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents."

Most important, there appears to be a widespread belief that there are "good" immigrants -- hard-working, family-oriented economic refugees -- and "bad" immigrants. Looking at a broad sample of public opinion data, it becomes evident that most Americans, as a general principle, believe that the former should have a shot at becoming fully participating members of society -- they should get the same chance at becoming Americans as earlier generations of immigrants enjoyed.

Views of how to approach the problem appear to vary more according to the knowledge a person has of the different policy options than his or her political ideology. The more one knows about the various approaches to immigration control, the more likely one is to favor a comprehensive approach. That was the key finding in an analysis of a broad sample of polling data by political scientist Ruy Teixeira last year. Teixeira pointed out that "If you just ask, with no further specifications, whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become legal workers," Teixeira wrote, "you get a negative response … And you get an even more negative response on whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens. But that initial reaction turns around if it sounds like helping illegal immigrants to get legal worker status or to become citizens isn't a free lunch for those who broke the law [emphasis added]." Teixeira concludes:

… the public favors a tough, but not punitive, approach to the problem of containing illegal immigration and is willing to consider fairly generous approaches to the illegal immigrants already here, provided they feel expectations for these immigrants are high and that they will play by the rules.
The polls that explain that immigrants would be required to jump through some hoops to become legal -- paying fines and back taxes, learning English and American history and getting in the "back of the line" behind those who are working through the legal process that exists currently -- reveal America's pragmatic supermajority.

Meet the "ANTIs"

You might ask why Congress has had such a devil of a time passing an immigration package, given that even two-thirds of Republicans favor a path to citizenship and other broad principles of comprehensive reform.

To answer that question, you have to break down the public opinion data further. Kathy Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS, points out that, while there's little difference between the views of Democrats and Republicans as a whole in terms of how they view immigration, there are differences in how they rank America's national priorities. Frankovic notes that when asked about domestic issues, 40 percent of Republican primary voters say that "strengthening immigration laws" is their top priority (72 percent of Democratic primary voters identified increasing healthcare availability was most important).

Most of those GOP primary voters are immigration hardliners -- the "Antis" -- who have booed Republican candidates during debates, who have promised not to contribute to any candidate who supports a path to legal status for illegal immigrants and will make getting a decent reform bill through this Congress almost impossible. According to Frankovic, "those four in 10 Republican primary voters who care about strengthening immigration laws have more negative feelings about immigration and immigrants than do other Republicans." For example, among those who see strengthening immigration as the most important domestic issue:
  • Fifty-eight percent believe that people now coming to the United States will in the long run make American society worse. Most other Republican voters say recent immigrants eventually will make U.S. society better.

  • Nearly two thirds (65 percent) say illegal immigrants are more likely than others to commit crimes. Fewer than half the rest of Republican voters think that.

  • Fifty-eight percent want to deport all illegal immigrants, even those who have lived and worked in the United States for two years. Only about a third of other Republican voters agree.

Compared with other Republican voters -- and with Democrats and independents -- they are also more likely to believe that illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans, and are more likely than other Republicans to want to cut down on legal as well as illegal immigration.

Immigration hardliners' views of immigrants themselves are harsher than Main Street's. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, Americans' attitudes toward immigrants from Latin American and Asia are more positive now than in the 1990s, "even as concern over the problems associated with immigration has increased." Most people view both groups as "very hard working and having strong family values." Pew notes that "Impressions of Latin American immigrants, in particular, have grown much more positive, with 80 percent describing them as very hard working compared with 63 percent nearly a decade ago."

Immigration hardliners are not only Republicans -- there are Democrats who are indistinguishable on the issue in rhetoric as well as substance -- but only one party is captive to their views.

Amnesty: a handy fiction

All of these data point to a serious problem for immigration hardliners: Although there remain very serious differences about the specifics regarding immigration, most Americans favor at least the broad principles of comprehensive reform. The hardliners can't win an honest debate on the issue, and apparently they know it. That's why they insist that the Senate proposals were based on offers of "amnesty."

It's no more accurate to call the measure contemplated last week in the Senate an "amnesty bill" then it is to call it a rhinoceros; while an amnesty implies simply granting people legal status, the Senate proposal would have required undocumented immigrants who can prove they have been working and paying taxes in the country for an extended time to then fork over $9,000 in fines and application fees (for a family of four) and that would only get them to the back of the line, with a four-year "Z" visa. Then, after those four years were up, the head of the household could return to his or her native country and file an additional application -- paying an additional $4,000 penalty in addition to application fees. If they pass a health screening, an English proficiency test and another test of American civics, then they become legal. But only after the backlog of existing applicants is cleared -- no "cutting in line." All of that for people who have committed a misdemeanor.

Obviously, that's not in any way an "amnesty" -- but Americans don't favor an easy ride, so the Rush Limbaugh crowd not only called the latest proposal an "amnesty bill," they had the nerve to accuse their opponents of dishonesty.

They wanted it more

Senate staffers say they were inundated with calls last week opposing the compromise, as the hardliners brought a passion to the fight that the bill's supporters lacked. The New York Times reported that the bill "sparked a furious rebellion among many Republican and even some Democratic voters, who were linked by the Internet and encouraged by radio talk show hosts" to bombard Congress with calls and e-mails. In the end, the Times noted, "supporters conceded that they were outmaneuvered by opponents who boiled down their complaints to that single hot-button word" -- "amnesty" -- that was "repeated often and viscerally on talk radio programs and blogs."

Democrats have to share some of the blame, however. Those leading the negotiations -- like many in the progressive community -- never seemed to grasp that they held the hot hand in the debate -- they never pressed the fight. During a conference call last month, Rep. Xavier Becerra, one of the Democratic negotiators in the House, tried to explain that: (A) the American public was squarely in the corner of those favoring comprehensive reform, (B) the negotiations in the Senate started significantly closer to the hardliners' views this year compared to last and (C) that was a victory for progressives.

In fact, a principal reason that there was so little passion on the part of the compromise's supporters was that it had a number of provisions in it that were designed to mollify the hardliners but ended up creating a bill that alienated potential support from the center and from the left. Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told the New York Times that the bill had been "born an orphan in terms of popular support."

Trying to bring immigration hardliners around was always a fool's errand: They've shown time and again that they won't accept the humane, comprehensive approach to immigration that most Americans favor.

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