Let's Get A Border Deal Done

By Tamar Jacoby
Saturday, July 1, 2006

The immigration bills passed by the House and Senate in recent months could hardly be more different. The House package is harsh, punitive and focused exclusively on tougher enforcement. The Senate bill balances toughness with pragmatism by including provisions to admit the workers we need to keep our economy growing and deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

The prospect of reconciling the two bills has always looked difficult -- the legislative equivalent of marrying a giraffe and a hippopotamus. As part of their maneuvering for position, House Republicans declared that they wouldn't even negotiate until they had held a series of special hearings on immigration. And despite signs of softening in recent days, even hints of possible agreement on a phased solution, the House is still going ahead with its hearings. Yet this, I believe, may not be such a bad thing.

Why would I say that? After all, the details on the hearings leave little doubt about the House's intentions: to look tough and -- let's put it charitably -- skeptical about immigration, both legal and illegal. Many of the sessions are scheduled for border states, where frustration about illegal immigration runs highest. And they will address such subjects as retroactive Social Security benefits for illegal immigrants, whether state and local law enforcement should be empowered to arrest illegal immigrants without other cause, whether existing border enforcement is tough enough, and English as the official language -- all subjects guaranteed to rub raw the public's irritation.

Still, as every American TV viewer knows, no one, no matter how savvy, ultimately succeeds in controlling the message in our great, garrulous media. House immigration naysayers may believe that they can use the hearings to stir voters' bile. But television, national and local, is not just going to air the sessions. On the contrary, each night's news will bring a debate about immigration, and the more one-sided the hearings, the more stubbornly the media will air the other side.

By the end of the summer, the public will have had a long, thorough course on immigration. And as someone who spends a lot of time speaking to audiences on the subject, I'm convinced that this will only deepen viewers' pragmatism. They'll start to look more closely at who these foreigners are -- and see that most are hard-working, churchgoing people with families. Voters will also start to think harder about enforcement -- about what is practical and what isn't. And by the end of the summer, they will be, if anything, hungrier for a solution -- less patient with grandstanding efforts to block a bill.

The debate won't, of course, convince the angriest voters -- the ones who want to seal the border and deport or drive out illegal immigrants. That 20 to 25 percent of the public -- and poll after poll shows that's how strong they are, no more, no less -- is probably not open to persuasion. But what the discussion could do is energize some of the other 75 percent: voters who, most surveys show, are more pragmatic -- including being willing to legalize the 12 million -- though generally less intense in their beliefs and less likely to voice or vote on them.

And new energy among moderates could in turn shift the balance among House Republicans, strengthening practical, problem-solving members as against those who think their ticket to reelection is signaling that they dislike immigrants. Of course this strategy will work only if there are indeed some pragmatists among House Republicans. But I believe they are there, including in leadership: members who see the summer's hearings less as a means to stop the Senate bill than as a way to mollify and manage the immigration naysayers in their caucus.

In the end, it will depend on what the electorate seems to want most. Do Americans want Congress to take action on this year's No. 1 domestic issue, or would they rather see candidates standing pat on a party line? A recent Manhattan Institute poll of likely Republican voters left little doubt: 72 percent thought it was very or extremely important for Congress to come to grips with immigration this year, and though 39 percent believed the Senate package was amnesty, 75 percent still favored it. They want a solution that badly.

Neither party yet seems to recognize this deepening public desire for the government to try governing. But that's exactly the point about a summer of debate about immigration. Come September, the public's hunger for a solution may be impossible to ignore.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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