Immigration bill: Less would be more

If senators want to resurrect immigration legislation, they should consider the possibility that less is sometimes more. Rather than smothering reform under a mattress-sized pillow called “comprehensive immigration reform,” the Senate must find a simpler and more elegant solution. Surely this Congress — staggering under lower approval ratings than President Bush’s — needs to get something done. And doing something less on immigration might provide the good news that Capitol Hill sorely needs.

Polls aren’t necessarily the key that unlocks the door to incremental immigration solutions. For one thing, the general public isn’t as worked up about this matter as talk radio and a few interest groups would have you think. According to a June 1-3 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of Americans were following the congressional legislation “very closely.” While another 42 percent expressed some interest, fully 40 percent admitted to being pretty much tuned out.

Liars are distorting polls and public opinion to imply that a majority of Americans are up in arms. Here’s an example. On Monday I received a “Dear Friend” e-mail message from Newt Gingrich under his “Winning the Future” banner. The message contained this lie: “Every recent survey has indicated that the American people think it is better to drop this bill and start over.” What is Mr. Newt talking about? That is not what every poll says. I can’t find a single public poll that supports that contention. To the contrary, solid pluralities or even majorities of American favor core concepts of the Senate bill, especially provisions for increased border security and some type of registered-worker program.

But top-line poll numbers are not what’s driving the politicians. It’s two underlying factors. First, there’s intensity. Opponents of any reform are more intense in their views, so they are heard louder and clearer. Second, there’s the word “amnesty.” Like other vilified words or phrases of past political battles (think “vouchers,” “unfunded mandate,” “plea bargain,” “Star Wars,” “Canadian-style healthcare,” “trickle-down economics” and “special rights”), the emotional baggage of the term “amnesty” has grown so heavy that it’s sinking the whole ship.

In looking for alternative strategies, I’m not sure that anything can be done to mitigate intensity. Opponents are going to be opponents. But they are not in the majority. So someone in Washington on this Father’s Day is going to have to decide whether a noisy minority is wearing the “daddy pants” of this country or whether the president and Congress are. That’s an essential question.

Citizenship issues are pivotal too. Not linking worker registration to citizenship will mollify some critics of so-called amnesty.

A less comprehensive and more saleable bill would focus on just two things: border security and alien-worker registration. Overwhelming majorities of Americans support these provisions. No problem. While there are contentious sub-issues like the 700-mile Mexican border fence, Congress should be able to fashion a compromise under the broader security banner. By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans favor registering workers who are here illegally. There is only paltry support for mass deportations. Senators might consider changing nomenclature, too, substituting “alien-worker registration plan” for “guest-worker program.”

Other issues should be jettisoned for the time being. In particular, the emotional and partisan issues of citizenship should be set aside, including pathways to citizenship for registered workers and nullification of the citizenship birthright. Proposed changes in existing legal immigration policies affecting families and technology workers should also be tabled.

If Congress wants to win a victory, pick a smaller hill to capture. Focus on security and illegal-worker registration now. The larger battle can wait.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.