There were fireworks this week on the floor of the U.S. Senate. That august body (or once august body) began deliberations on the Gang of 8 comprehensive immigration reform bill. Senator Grassley (Republican of Iowa) proposed an amendment that would require that the border be secure for six months before there could be legalization of immigrants who entered the country unlawfully. Harry Reid (Democrat of Nevada, and the Senate Majority Leader) used one of the Senate’s procedural tools to block the amendment by requiring it to get 60 votes.
This led to eruptions of anger on both sides. Grassley objected, and Reid angrily (or maybe scornfully) noted that the Republicans, as the Senate minority, are fond of using the filibuster, which can only be stopped by a vote of 60 senators. Grassley angrily responded that the movers of the bill had promised that it would be considered in regular order, and requiring supermajorities right at the outset is not part of regular order. We must hope (although probably cannot expect) that what begins in such bitterness will not also end in bitterness.
At any rate, the Grassley-Reid wrangling raises a serious substantive question, one that sheds light on why the immigration debate stokes the worst suspicions of a certain segment of American society. That question is: why can’t amnesty come second, anyway?
Consider how the political ground occupied by the Democratic and Republican supporters of “comprehensive immigration reform” has changed since this issue was last seriously debated, a few years ago, near the end of the Bush Administration. At that time, as now, it was argued that a comprehensive legislative solution requires both better enforcement, so as to stop future unlawful entry, as well as legalization for those already here unlawfully but who have done nothing else wrong. Now the ante has been upped. Now the proponents of this approach insist not only that both must be done in one legislative package, but also that the amnesty portion must come first. (A point of clarification here: the bill presently debated purports to defer a path to citizenship until after certain security steps have been taken–although there is a dispute about whether those measures are adequate–but also grants a non-citizen legal status almost immediately.)
But why? Why must it be this way? Why do the leading sponsors of the bill resist even a flipping of the order of the key elements, when it would be possible to keep both and ensure that both will be achieved?
This is the sort of thing that simply fans the flames of some American’s concerns about “comprehensive immigration reform.” They suspect that the supporters of the bill insist on this order because they–some of our leading statesmen–don’t think that effective border security will ever materialize. They either don’t really want it, or they don’t think it can be realistically achieved. But if that is the case, why will there not be need for another amnesty in another 25, or even 15 years? In sum, a significant share of Americans suspect that a key part of the political class is not serious about immigration enforcement, and they therefore worry that they are being sold a solution that is really a recipe for further problems.
Whether this fear is correct is difficult to say. But the fear is certainly understandable, and it certainly would be the part of prudent leaders to allay such fears, thus making immigration reform a policy that will unite in agreement the largest possible majority of Americans. We have already had in the last few years one major reform (the Affordable Care Act) that deeply divided and continues to divide the country. Another one will further strain public comity.