Am I Wobbly? Over at The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry attempt to answer the question of whether National Review has gone wobbly on immigration. It's pretty clear the answer is yes. Ponnuru says he's being "consistent" with NR's position when he defends--as the "framework for a compromise"--Sen. Johnny Isakson's plan, which would delay "an amnesty or guest worker program" until border and workplace enforcement measures were shown to be working.
The biggest problem with the Isakson plan is probably not either of the two objections I initially raised--1) that a Bush-like administration might cheat and falsely certify that enforcement is working or 2) that the promise of a "last chance" at amnesty would cause a one-time stampede of illegals across the border. That's not to say those aren't serious problems. For example, Ponnuru says the "stampede" would be prevented because any amnesty would "only legalize workers who could prove that they were here at the time of passage." Well all right then! If Ponnuru is confident that illegal immigrants who routinely purchase fake Social Security documents will have trouble with the easier task of faking evidence of pre-legislation residence, he's more naive than I think he is.** (My grandmother stretched the truth to get into this country, I've been told. Why shouldn't desperate, impoverished Salvadorans?)
The very hope of amnesty--if only from the millions of currently resident illegals--would put intense pressure on any subsequent Congress to fudge or relax any "benchmark" requirements written into the law, to make amnesty (or "earned" legalization, or quasi-amnesty, whatever you want to call it) happen sooner and on more lenient terms. ***
That gets to the major problem. As Mark Krikorian points out, the effect of the Isaakson plan in a) legitimizing the concept of amnesty and b) creating an expectation of amnesty outweighs any clever legalistic safeguards Ponnuru may think Sen. Isakson is writing into the law. The combination of (a) and (b) would make some form of amnesty, if not quite inevitable then a lot more inevitable than now--which would seem, in turn, to guarantee further waves of amnesty-seeking illegal immigration.**** If, as in 1986, actual enforcement on the border and in the workplace proved weak, that would mean, as in 1986, fresh millions of illegals for editorialists to debate giving amnesty to. Sen. Grassley has made this point quite effectively:
"When you reward illegality, you get more of it. So, President Mary Smith 20 years from now will be proposing more amnesty, only instead of amnesty for 12 million people, it will be for 30 million people."
National Review has been one of the voices of sanity in the immigration debate. If even NR concedes that there's an official amnesty in our near future, the debate hasn't "moved to the right," as Lowry argues. The debate is over.
This is all unnecessary. There is no need for a "compromise" or a "framework for a compromise" that includes a promise of amnesty at all. Kate O'Beirne recently noted that conventional wisdom says comprehensive reform probably won't pass this year or next, in part because Dems don't want to go out on a limb for amnesty. Why make a key concession when you are about to win? Answer: John McCain. The NR editorial can only be read as a desperate attempt to save John McCain from the political consequences of his misguided pro-comprehensive stand by offering him a fallback position more palatable to the GOP primary voters. Indeed, Lowry made this explicit before the editorial, when he wrote that endorsing Isakson
would take care of McCains' political problem, it would give him a position on immigration that would avoid the excesses on both sides, and it would move the ball forward significantly in the intra-Republican debate--he could legitimately lead on this. [E.A.]
In other words, 'Here's a compromise we don't really support--or that we don't dare come out and say we support--but, hey, it helps our guy with his 'political problem.'' I don't see how that is leadership. (Thank God McCain wasn't running during the welfare debate of the mid-90s, or we might have wound up with NR endorsing one of the many make-believe compromises proposed by moderates as a way of blocking the entitlement-ending law that finally passed.)
If McCain's support for semi-amnesty is killing him, why can't he just drop it? Why does he need a fallback position that includes a promise of amnesty? There are plenty of other fallback positions. McCain could support enforcement with a mere promise of future debate on what to do with current illegal residents. He could call for a national commission! He could say, "The nation is not ready for comprehensive immigration reform," and pledge to educate it slowly, over time. He could declare his earlier position "ill-considered" and retreat into meaningful silence--i.e., shut up. OK, that one's impossible.
In any case, he doesn't have to lose and drag NR (and the immigration debate) down with him.