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.”
Then came President George W. Bush — another Republican — who started the modern immigration reform debate when he announced that Mexico and the United States would match willing employers in the United States with willing workers in Mexico and in the process offer millions of illegal immigrants a shot at legal status if they were willing to earn it. And we should do all this, Bush said, to fill “jobs that Americans won’t do.” A lot of people in his own party hated that line. But Bush kept using it.
Nor did Vice President Dick Cheney retreat from his view that, for the sake of national security, 12 million illegal immigrants should be pulled from the shadows and offered legal status. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge agreed with that opinion, and so did his successor Michael Chertoff — both Republicans.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, it was a Republican — Sen. John McCain of Arizona — who championed the issue both in Congress and, later, on the campaign trail while running for president. And he caught grief for it. During the 2008 election, I asked McCain if there was any truth to a story I’d heard that Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who also ran for the Republican nomination, taunted him during the primaries by implying that McCain was too simpatico to Latinos.
“Yeah,” McCain told me, “we were in a restaurant, and he just sent over a plate of nachos. What do you say to something like that? I just said, ‘Thanks very much.’”
When I asked him what he thought motivated Tancredo and his culture crusade, he didn’t mince words.
“Throughout our history,” McCain said, “we have had people who stoked nativist instincts.”
When was the last time you heard a liberal Democrat even utter the word “nativist”? They won’t. They’re afraid to, lest voters think they’re soft on illegal immigration.
Of course, McCain went on to lose the general election and the presidency to Barack Obama. That is the same Barack Obama who, during his brief time in the Senate, helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kill an immigration reform bill as a favor to labor unions, which opposed language calling for guest workers. And it’s the same Barack Obama who spent the last year skirting an issue that Republicans have been brave enough to tangle with for the last quarter century.
I don’t care whether or not you support comprehensive immigration reform. But, if you’re going to cast the debate in terms of liberals and conservatives, at least tell the story right