Losing the waiting game

The House Republican leadership is preparing for a series of “field” hearings to find out how Americans really feel about immigration and the alternate reforms that have passed the House and Senate.

The House Republican leadership is preparing for a series of “field” hearings to find out how Americans really feel about immigration and the alternate reforms that have passed the House and Senate.

These are obviously being held to delay the time when House and Senate conferees will have to sit down and get to the politically and substantively difficult job of trying to come up with something that stands at least a chance of winning approval in both bodies and the White House. The delay would seem to reflect a belief that no such animal exists and it would be better simply to punt.

Maybe, but the public focus on immigration may backfire if Congress fails at least to take steps to beef up border security before giving up. The rest of what its advocates like to refer to as “comprehensive” reform may have to wait, but delaying action on the border could prove disastrous for all involved.

Actually, the idea that Congress needs field hearings to find out how the public feels about the issue is absurd on its face. Democrats and Republicans alike who have bothered to visit their districts lately or who read their mail should know just where voters stand. They want some sort of comprehensive reform not including what they view as “amnesty” for those illegals here now and not before they are satisfied that their government is serious about border security.

The simultaneous enactment of border-security measures, some sort of guest-worker program and what its advocates continue to describe as “a path to citizenship” for those already here may make sense to the president and Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) but it makes no sense at all to the voters. After all, they’ve been down that road before.

This is not to say that there isn’t public appreciation for the need for more than simple measures to “secure” the borders. Indeed, many Americans want more and might ultimately even support some sort of guest-worker program or an increase in legal immigration, but most feel strongly that border security must come first.

In 1986 they were told comprehensive reform had to include enhanced border security, internal enforcement of immigration laws and an amnesty for those already here. Even Ronald Reagan endorsed the amnesty in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale as part of a package of reforms that the public was promised would solve the problem.

They bought it, the legislation was passed and folks quickly discovered that they had been sold a bill of goods. Interior enforcement ended, the employer sanctions were never taken seriously and the funds needed to secure the border were never forthcoming. The comprehensive reform package boiled down to just one thing: amnesty.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising to find now that the public isn’t putting much faith in promises that this time things will be different. It may be possible to enact a package that includes more than beefed up border security, but those who support it better be sure that other aspects of whatever they agree to can go into effect only when the public is convinced that the border is, in fact, being secured.

Actually, rather than holding field hearings, GOP leaders need look only to the role immigration played in the special election to replace former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) earlier this month and the results of the primary today in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. It has been represented for a decade by Republican Chris Cannon, a leading congressional opponent of restrictions on immigration. Over the years he has supported measure after measure to ease immigration and to make certain that immigrants both legal and illegal have access to as many federal and state benefits as possible.

This year, however, Cannon is in serious trouble. A political novice is challenging him on immigration, and polls last week indicated that Cannon could lose. He’s been forced to moderate and explain many of the positions he took so safely over the years. The president and the GOP leadership have been doing everything they can to save him, and even Mrs. Bush recorded a message that telemarketing firms are directing at district Republicans.

Cannon may survive his primary. He’s a reliable conservative and in touch with his constituents on most issues, but even if he does the scare he’s received should tell the Republican leadership that this year immigration may trump everything else.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).