By Andrew Thomas
When a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators announced plans in January 2013 to push new immigration legislation, Americans learned that the leaders behind this latest effort to deal with the nation’s broken borders would cross the political aisle. But it did not take long for them to realize that bipartisanship came at a price: amnesty for all illegal immigrants.
Coming together for this purpose was the so-called Gang of Eight. The members of the group were Democratic Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Charles Schumer of New York, and Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, and Marco Rubio of Florida. Their proposal was the most ambitious immigration package since the 1986 reforms known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (or Simpson-Mazzoli Act).
The Gang of Eight’s proposal would allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America to remain without fear of deportation. They would be required to register with the federal government and pay a fine and then would receive “probationary legal status.” This would allow them to remain in the country and work.
To gain permanent status, they would have to go to the “end of the line” and could qualify for long-term protected status only after the border was secured and a system put in place to track the status of immigrants who have overstayed visas. The bill also would seek to attract highly skilled immigrants.
Leaders of both parties added to this chorus of bipartisan support. Several Republican leaders in Congress and the media joined in, including Congressman Paul Ryan. To a cheering crowd in Las Vegas on January 29, President Obama threw his weight behind the efforts, stating that “the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Obama’s own plan, contained in a “secret” document nonetheless leaked suspiciously to the media in February 2013, was not substantively much different from the Gang of Eight’s. In fact, while Republican leaders denounce Obama’s approach as too soft on border enforcement and “dead on arrival,” the differences between his approach and the Gang of Eight’s were minor; some conservatives speculated the “leak” was a deliberate attempt to allow Republican leaders to put some distance between themselves and the president. The main distinction between the two plans was whether the federal government will allow illegal immigrants to apply for legal status as permanent residents after eight years have passed (Obama) or after a still-unnamed commission declares the border to be secure (Gang of Eight). In either case, the practical result is immediate legalization, or amnesty by another name.
There is little practical difference between the two plans for an additional reason: Latin American immigrants in the past have had a low rate of naturalization. After the 1986 amnesty law was passed by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan, most illegal immigrants who qualified for amnesty did not even pursue and obtain citizenship.
Sparring over the proposed reforms quickly began in expected quarters. In testimony on Capitol Hill, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano went so far as to claim the border has never been more secure.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will be a central checkpoint for the legislation, pledged to bring the reforms to a vote and push them vigorously.
But conservative Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee remained skeptical. Pressing their belief the borders still are not secure and that this is just the latest incarnation of amnesty, these leaders have questioned the whole premise of the legislation. Emerging as a prime leader of this opposition is Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. He has shared fears that the efforts will be “amnesty only” and that the promises of beefed-up border security will not materialize, while mass legal status conferred on illegal immigrants will. Sessions declared that supporters of the bill suffer from “a lot of overconfidence,” and predicted flatly, “It will not pass.”
To bolster their view, Sessions and his allies invoke both fairness and a long history of non-enforcement. Immediate legalization for illegal immigrants who would gain “probationary legal status” under the reforms would amount to preferential treatment for those who have essentially broken into the country. Those who played by the rules will not qualify for this coveted status.
Moreover, past promises to toughen enforcement measures have not led to subsequent action by federal agencies tasked with securing the border. Congress passed a law in 2006, the Secure Fence Act, requiring a border fence. Congress has authorized, multiple times, creation of an entry-exit system to monitor those coming and going from the country. Neither the fence nor the entry-exit system has been constructed.
What pressure will be brought to bear on holdout Republicans opposing the push for amnesty? Some inkling of this comes from the rough tactics being used to discredit groups that advocate tougher border security and oppose amnesty. One group aligned with the Gang of Eight, the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, has accused groups such as Numbers USA, the Center for lmmigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform of not being genuinely conservative groups. The latter, hardline groups are being tarred with accusations that they support population-control measures such as abortion and sterilization.
The obvious intention is to separate the hardline groups from conservative orthodoxy and make it easier for conservative members of Congress to vote in favor of amnesty. The Washington Post acknowledged recently that “establishment Republicans” were behind the effort to marginalize the border-hawk organizations, and that this “campaign . . . is another sign of how seriously” these Republican leaders are pursuing a new immigration package.
Leaders of the targeted groups complain they are being smeared by a well-organized campaign underwritten by moneyed interests that want to liberalize immigration laws and operations. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has blasted these accusations as “laughably unbelievable” and an attempt to “bork” opponents of the administration’s new plan with the Gang of Eight (“bork” being a reference to the famous smear campaign used to block Senate confirmation of the late Judge Robert H. Bork the Reagan nominee in 1987 to the United States Supreme Court).
A Republican-led House of Representatives ultimately will have to go along with the proposed immigration reforms, at least in some manner, in order for amnesty to become law. For this reason, such bare-knuckled, divide-and-conquer tactics may well be, for the Gang of Eight and its allies, their only realistic path to victory.
Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Anslysis.