Recently, I heard a conservative radio talk show host suggest that Obama was pursuing one liberal idea after another. Next up, he said: immigration reform.
First, Obama isn’t pursuing immigration reform. It’s pursuing him. The president spent his first year in office running from the issue. He dedicated just 37 words in his State of the Union address to immigration. It wasn’t until tens of thousands of people marched on Washington last weekend that Obama got up the nerve to climb out from underneath his desk. Even now, Obama won’t say what principles should guide an overhaul of immigration laws. All he will say is that he supports the legislative framework set out by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who will soon introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill around which the next immigration debate will be centered. As proactive as Obama has been in other matters, when it comes to immigration, he is strictly reacting to events going on around him.
Second, despite the hype and the demagoguery, immigration reform is as much a conservative idea as it is a liberal one.
Let’s start in 1986, when Republican President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, an amnesty bill co-authored by Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
Conversely, Democratic President Bill Clinton was so afraid of being seen as weak on border security that he signed some of the most restrictive immigration laws the country had seen in half a century. Those provisions denied welfare benefits to legal immigrants, fortified the U.S.-Mexico border through Operations Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and Hold the Line, and made it easier for the government to deport illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, in California, in 1994, voters passed Proposition 187, an insidious ballot initiative that sought to withhold benefits to punish illegal immigrants and their children for the fact that Californians had grown addicted to cheap illegal immigrant labor. While Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, used the measure to resurrect his reelection campaign, some of the loudest opponents were also Republicans. They included Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, syndicated columnist Linda Chavez, and Empower America co-directors Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett. And when supporters argued, just as they have since Ben Franklin wailed on German immigrants in the 1700s, that immigrants were ruining America, it was another conservative — William Kristol, now publisher of the Weekly Standard — who countered: “Immigrants don’t corrupt America. America corrupts immigrants.”