Immigration bill stalls amid calls for 'enforcement first'
The reform measure failed a key Senate vote Thursday. Its foes say the pressing need is to enforce existing laws – even if it makes life harder for illegal immigrants.
Washington and Phoenix
The demise of the Senate immigration-reform bill on Thursday was, on the face of it, a matter of simple math: too few senators willing to move the controversial legislation to a final vote.Skip to next paragraph
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But the bill's bitter end has a deeper meaning. What nixed it was in large part a vocal, frustrated contingent of Americans with a vision for how US immigration reform should look – and this compromise legislation was not it.
"I don't think the message can be any clearer. The American people want us to start with enforcement at the border and at the workplace," said Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana.
The bill's failure, 46 to 53, came despite the fact that two cabinet secretaries lobbied senators at the door as they prepared to vote on President Bush's top domestic priority. Fifteen Democrats and an Independent joined 37 Republicans to derail the bill.
"Enforcement first," or even "enforcement only," is how opponents of the Senate bill describe their alternative to immigration reform. That is, enforce the laws already on the books, and life in the US will become uncomfortable enough that many of the 12 million illegal immigrants now here will leave of their own volition. Beef up the border, and fewer will make it into the US in the first place.
"What we'd like to see is [government officials] enforce the laws that currently exist, which they have never done," says Ira Mehlman of The Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington. "Most Americans fundamentally find objectionable that to even consider enforcing our laws we have to first make a deal with the people who break the laws."
Russell Pearce, a state lawmaker in Arizona and sponsor of a bill there to sanction employers who hire undocumented workers, calls this approach "attrition by enforcement." "One stop at a time [of a suspected illegal immigrant]. One employer at a time. Shut down the rides, turn down the lights, the crowd goes home," says Mr. Pearce.
Whether this approach could be effective, and at what cost in terms of both dollars and human misery, is hotly debated. Some insist it would not, in fact, empty America of illegal immigrants, but would only drive those here deeper underground, increasing the likelihood that they would be exploited and abused.
Critics of "enforcement only," in fact, say some laws on the books today are unenforceable. "To be able to enforce the law, we must have an enforceable law," Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, an architect of the downed bill, had argued before Thursday's vote. He cited the law governing workplace enforcement as not providing a viable system. "If you don't have a good law to enforce, you can't work that strategy" of attrition.
Supporters of the "grand bargain" on immigration had said that if the Senate rejected this key procedural vote, immigration reform would be dead until new elections. But after the vote, Senate majority leader Harry Reid predicted: "It will come back. It's only a question of when. We're only six months into this Congress."
For the moment, though, faith in "enforcement first" – coupled with a Senate amendment process that angered some fence-sitting lawmakers – proved too potent for the forces of compromise to overcome. By the time the bill got through a bruising floor debate, it had made foes in both parties. While a core of GOP conservatives led the fight that toppled the bill, opposition was severe among Democrats, too.
What most riled conservative Republicans – and their fired-up constituents – was the proposed law's path to citizenship for people now in the US illegally. It would be 1986 all over again, they said, referring to the most recent US immigration-reform legislation. Those who had broken immigration laws would get to stay, and politicians in Washington would still not enforce their own immigration laws, they argued.