Americans 'Would Not Support Immigration Reform that Included Amnesty'

Four days ago, President Obama ordered that an immigration policy not agreed to by Congress be enacted, deferring deportation for certain young illegal immigrants and single-handedly jacking the immigration issue up to its highest position on voters' radar since 2006.

Six years ago, the controversy over how to handle millions of illegal immigrants had hit the boiling point  of controversy. Minutemen watch groups deployed along porous desert regions on America's southern border. Tens of thousands were spilling into the streets of American cities to protest H.R. 4437 - the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, passed by the House 239-182 on Dec. 16, 2005, but later killed in the Senate.

Covering those protests back then in Southern California, I remember standing within a crowd of demonstrators after Maywood was declared a sanctuary city, seeing the signs and hearing the chants decrying Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

"Who is Sensenbrenner?" a woman near me asked. The people around her shrugged.

"They turned into a 'hate Jim Sensenbrenner rally,'" the congressman said of the massive spring protests -- demonstrations that quickly petered out by fall.

Talking to PJM today, Sensenbrenner recalled how Cardinal Roger Mahony whipped up a frenzy among Hispanics in L.A. and propelled the protests.

"I was very disappointed in the cardinal's actions on that, that he ended up becoming an advocate for illegal immigrants," Sensenbrenner said. "Personal attacks that went on during that period of time really were not conducive to getting anything done."

The famous legislation comprehensively dealt with everything from ending a "catch and release" enforcement policy to tightening deportation rules, verifying workers' eligibility status, and prohibiting aid to illegal immigrants.

Another hallmark of the demonstrations was how they morphed into something beyond their original intent. When many families showed up for what they thought was simply a pro-immigrant rally, they were handed copies of The Socialist Worker or greeted by signs promoting the reconquista of Aztlan.

"Definitely it spun out into something," the congressman said. "Mahony and organizers ended up losing control of it. That ended up hurting the cause of solving the problem."

But Sensenbrenner sees one powerful lasting effect of H.R. 4437, what he called "probably the last great chance to get some kind of immigration reform that did not include amnesty."

"The American public spoke loud and clear in reaction to the protests," he said, and though still strong supporters of legal immigration Americans continue to indicate that "they would not support immigration reform that included amnesty."

Between then and now, he noted, Mexico has become more dangerous and the border fence has been expanded by a separate act of Congress. There are more Border Patrol agents and National Guardsmen deployed, though "the border is still very leaky." And President Obama's boasts about a decrease in illegal crossers, Sensenbrenner said, is "more a reflection of a bad economy" and fewer jobs luring immigrants.

And since Friday, deportation action has been suspended, by Obama's order, against an estimated 800,000 illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children and can meet other criteria similar to the long-stalled DREAM Act.

"What Obama did is purely political," Sensenbrenner said, noting that last year the president said he didn't have the unilateral authority to pull such a move.

And he doesn't give Romney high points for his response to the campaign-season tactic.

On CBS' Face the Nation Sunday, Romney carefully responded by focusing on what he would do to secure the border and strengthen workplace enforcement. "I think the timing is pretty clear. If he really wanted to make a solution that dealt with these kids or with illegal immigration in America, then this is something he would have taken up in his first three and a half years, not in his last few months," Romney said.

"I was disappointed," Sensenbrenner said. "He's only closed half the loop. What Obama has done is increased the pool of labor by as many as 800,000 people. …I think Romney should say the president overstepped his authority and say it is going to have an adverse effect on the labor market."

The congressional response to the policy change, he said, presents "more difficult questions." If the House passed something, the upper chamber wouldn't "when you have two top Democratic leaders in the Senate praising Obama to the skies." And even if legislation to counter Obama's order slid through, there wouldn't be enough votes to override a veto.

"This is an issue that the voters are going to have to decide," Sensenbrenner said. "There are many issues… Obama has just added one more to the list."

As far as the pleas from the president and Democratic leaders to pass a DREAM Act to fill in for Friday's "stopgap measure," the Wisconsin Republican won't be supporting something he calls "simply unfair" by giving the beneficiaries the opportunity to go to head of the line.

"The DREAM Act is wrong," Sensenbrenner said. "It gives a kind of amnesty to people who have broken the law."