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The GOP's border war

Immigration policy has split the Republican Party, with some advocating reform and others demanding only strict enforcement.

October 16, 2005|Tamar Jacoby | TAMAR JACOBY is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

THE HEARTLAND is red; New York and California are blue. Democrats are softies who care about civil rights and minorities (including immigrants), while Republicans are fixated on law and order (and would be happy to seal the borders and deport millions of illegal immigrants). Right?

That's the conventional wisdom. But in fact, like most conventional wisdom, it's a poor guide to reality -- particularly to the politics of immigration playing out in Washington and across the country, where likely congressional candidates are already laying the groundwork for the 2006 midterm elections.

The truth is the Republican Party is split down the middle on immigration, and this long-standing divide is now exploding into out-and-out warfare.

The conventional wisdom isn't entirely wrong: Republicans are for law and order -- for retaking control of the border and restoring the rule of law in communities inundated by illegal immigration. But the party is deeply divided over just how to reassert control.

The first open skirmish occurred this month when 70-plus Republican members of Congress signed a letter to the president pushing back against the reform package he proposed nearly two years ago.

"We believe that there should be no new guest-worker program," the congressmen wrote, "or any expansion of the number of lawful residents in our country until the executive branch better enforces current immigration laws."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay and Delay's temporary replacement, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, have come out in favor of this bottom-up revolt. But so far, the administration has held its ground, insisting in no uncertain terms at top-level briefings in the White House that enforcement alone is not the answer -- that the reform the president intends to get behind will include not just a guest-worker program but also some workable solution for the illegal immigrants already in the country.

Think of it as "enforcement-only" versus "enforcement-plus." The hard right is arguing that the best way to get control is with more aggressive enforcement of laws already on the books, while the administration and its allies (they include mavericks such as Sen. John McCain and conservatives such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas) counter that current policy is so unrealistic that it is all but unenforceable -- and that we must first change the law, then redouble our efforts to make it stick.

The reformers are calling for changes that could almost have come from Democrats. (In fact, several GOP lawmakers have made common cause with Democrats, crafting bipartisan legislation). Not just more visas for immigrant workers but stiffer penalties for employers who hire unauthorized workers, a transition to legality for illegal immigrants and the possibility of earning U.S. citizenship.

In a sense, it's a standoff between the wing of the party focused most on politics -- at least in the short term -- and the wing focused on governing. House members, eyeing next year's elections, want to do the popular, crowd-pleasing thing: a crackdown on the border -- more men, more money, more technology, maybe even more fences to feature in tough-talking campaign ads. And the reformers are countering -- correctly, responsibly -- that this posturing will not solve the problem.

Enforcement-only sounds good, but it's an empty promise.

It probably won't work to seal the border -- it hasn't in the past. It won't put an end to the foolish denial at the heart of our current immigration policy: denial of the workers we need to keep the economy growing. It won't eliminate the problems caused when those workers move into local communities. It won't help schools and hospitals come to grips with families they don't currently budget for.

And it won't do a thing to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States. That vast, underground world of falsely documented foreigners (and the smugglers and forgers who live off them) will remain a deadly security threat -- and a brazen affront to the rule of law.

But the irony is that an enforcement-only approach won't even please many voters, Democrat or Republican. According to a national poll of 800 likely Republican voters to be released Monday by the Manhattan Institute, the party rank-and-file is far more pragmatic than many House Republicans believe. Yes, they look favorably on vigilante groups such as the Minutemen. Yes, many of them want to cut the number of legal immigrants we admit each year, and some -- 16% -- want to stop the flow entirely.

But when pressed about what the government should do to get a grip on illegal immigration, not even a majority think that enforcement alone will solve the problem. An astonishing 84% understand that it would not be possible to deport 11 million foreigners.

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