President Bush is threatening to revive the failed comprehensive immigration bill in "improved" form. He is wasting his and our time. No amount of improving can make the comprehensive approach the best path for America to solve its immigration woes. Instead of a big bang approach to immigration reform, we need to adopt a different sort of change strategy for America, a step-by-step, or iterative approach, learning as we go, passing reforms in a logical sequence, and learning from mistakes along the way.
Immigration affects every aspect of life, and the ramifications of even minor changes can take a long time to make themselves known. It is foolish in the extreme to believe that we can scope out the entire problem and choose the right course for years to come, all at once in a deal hammered out by horse-trading pols.
The public does not believe that any new law will be enforced any more rigorously than the existing immigration laws. So it sees any compromise deal as another in a series of empty promises like those made to sell earlier amnesty programs that only made matters worse. The politicians do not seem to realize how completely they have lost the confidence of the American people when it comes to stemming the flow of illegals across the border. The government must earn credibility by performing the basics of guarding the border and registering those without papers, before the people will trust it to manage any new path toward permanent residence or citizenship for a group of people whose number we cannot estimate to the nearest three million.
By and for the political class
Why are the media and the leadership of both parties so insistent on an all-or nothing comprehensive approach? A wide-ranging deal solves several problems for the political class. They appear to "get something done," and can claim to have led the nation. They can then take the subject off the table, at least until problems require more congressional hearings.
For President Bush, a comprehensive program is his major domestic agenda item. Putting it all together in one big package means that troublesome issues which might be embarrassing either to oppose or advocate openly, can be shunted to obscure passages in a bill running to many hundred pages. This works well for both the president and congress.
Congress gets to become the gatekeeper in any comprehensive deal, determining what goes in and what stays out of the legislation. The art of the deal particularly empowers the leadership of the two parties, as they put together the final version of the complex law, engaging in complex wheeling and dealing and making themselves the hub of influence.
The big bang approach avoids genuine debate, which is one of its primary advantages for the powers that be. The bill is so complicated, the deal so fast-changing, always subject to last minute rewriting in conference, that the public does not really know what is being passed and what is not. This information vacuum helps account for the appallingly low quality of the political debate over the immigration bill so far. A false dichotomy has been foisted on the American people by the political class and its media handmaidens: either pass a monstrosity "comprehensive bill" or do nothing. In the process, the necessary larger debate on several important aspects of policy is short-circuited when the only two alternatives entertained are a comprehensive deal or nothing. George W. Bush:
"If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all."
What the powerful want
A consensus exists among the powerful and politically connected of both parties that the 12-20 million illegals currently in residence must be given some sort of papers, if only to protect the businesses, large and small, which depend on their low cost labor. Democrats see a future voting constituency, charities and government agencies see more clients and more funding for their services, and some unions see more members. Republicans fear harming the economy with labor shortages and futilely hope to avoid being branded racists.
But the American people are in no hurry to reward law breaking, and are willing to live with employers suffering anxiety attacks over their undocumented workforce, and continued difficulties for those who crossed the border improperly. There is no particular sense of urgency about solving the problems of the law-breakers, only a sense of urgency over stopping further law-breaking. Certainly, there is no widespread conviction that we know enough now to design in advance a well-functioning complex set of changes.
A Strategy versus a Framework
There is no advantage of a grand plan over the step by step approach unless there is some real wisdom and experience guiding it, and making a whole more than the sum of its parts. Instead of a detailed strategy passed into law with far reaching legislation, we need to start with the basics: secure the border and start registering those without papers for further investigation and processing. The framework we embrace would then provide a basis for further discussion of other important and detailed questions, such as details of possible residence permits and other avenues to screening and regularization of the illegal population, limiting the role of litigation and appeals.
There is already in place legislation authorizing a fence over about a third of the mileage of the southern border. For both practical and symbolic reasons, the fence needs to cover the full border, both as a sign of resolve and to remove fears that border crossers will be driven into even more wild and dangerous country, but still keep coming. While some may worry that Mexicans will take offense, others hope that Mexico will understand that America is finally serious about ending the export of its social and economic failures. The media may not choose to dwell on it, but the booing of Americans, our national anthem and flag at soccer matches and beauty contests has taken its toll on the American public's willingness to serve of bogeyman for Mexico's corrupt political economy.
Should President Bush and Congress continue to breathe life into the dead issue of comprehensive immigration legislation, they will find themselves at the business end of a popular revolt.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.