One more hurdle is cleared. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee gave its approval last week to comprehensive immigration legislation. Happy news, though the risk is still high that compromise will be supplanted by ideological conviction.
To get the bill through the Senate committee with Republican support, Democrats had to abandon an amendment that would have given gay and lesbian spouses of U.S. citizens the same immigration prospects as heterosexual spouses. Thus, basic equity was sacrificed for the presumably greater good of passing legislation to rationalize immigration laws and free some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States from legal limbo.
Meanwhile, in the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte complained that the Senate bill wouldn’t secure the border. We have previously written on the impossibility of attaining anything close to perfect security in a nation with 7,000 miles of land boundary and 95,000 miles of shoreline. Yet for some conservatives the notion has become close to an obsession, all but impervious to facts on the ground.
The U.S. spends roughly $18 billion a year on immigration control, more than on all other federal law enforcement efforts combined. Since 2004, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled, to more than 21,000. The use of fencing, drones and other measures has drastically expanded. And there is evidence that it’s having an effect: In 2012, the Border Patrol recorded 364,768 apprehensions, down 50 percent from four years earlier. Meanwhile, the Senate legislation promises as much as $6.5 billion more for border technology, fencing (costing at least $4 million per mile) and additional agents. The U.S. border with Mexico isn’t neglected.
In a similar vein, the House risks transforming immigration reform into one more theater in its war against the Affordable Care Act. Many Republicans refuse to support legislation that doesn’t explicitly deny public funds to immigrants with provisional legal status. But in the event such people need emergency-room care, they will have to pay out of pocket. If they can’t afford the typically exorbitant bills, their legal status could be jeopardized.
There’s one very good reason that immigration reform hasn’t collapsed: Democrats, including some who balked at the last immigration reform effort, and mainstream Republicans recognize that their self-interest is aligned with the national interest in passing a law. Even so, there is only so much ideological baggage a bill can carry. If House Republicans insist on creating legislation far to the right of the Senate bill — with onerous border enforcement “triggers” and a longer, more arduous path to citizenship than the 13-year Senate plan — the hard-won compromise will erode.
Preventing that unhappy future falls to Speaker John Boehner. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, large majorities of Democrats and independent voters supported a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants; only 42 percent of Republican voters did. The attitudes of Republican voters will no doubt be reflected by many Republican legislators, including some vocal opponents on the House Judiciary Committee.
Boehner’s task is to facilitate debate while keeping the legislation from sinking under the ideological bugaboos that have rendered the House dysfunctional. Immigration reform may be the only meaningful legislation this House is capable of producing. If it shatters, the nation will suffer, and the damage to what remains of public faith in Congress will be significant. The damage to the Republican Party probably will be far worse.
Bloomberg News (May 28)