Column: Immigration proposals are something of a disaster

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 12, 2004

by Jonah Goldberg, Syndicated columnist

Well, you can say one thing for President Bush’s new immigration reform proposal: It makes all of the people who say he’s a reincarnated Adolf Hitler look like idiots (again). It’s kind of hard to see Der Fuhrer offering what amounts to a sweeping amnesty to millions of Third Worlders residing illegally in our midst.

Alas, the advantages of Bush’s broad-stroked proposal become less clear beyond that. Conservatives, including most of my colleagues at National Review, see the proposal as something close to a disaster.

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Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, argues in the current issue of National Review that Bush’s proposal is the result of a White House completely shut off from the views of average Americans and the conservative base of the Republican Party.

He writes: “Republicans need to save the president from his advisers, lest amnesty become for him what illegal-alien driver’s licenses were for Gray Davis: the disaster he embraced because everyone he knew thought it was a good idea.”

Columnist Michelle Malkin is a bit more succinct. She says the plan is “an abomination.”

On the other side, the immigration advocacy industry – a de facto branch of the Democratic Party – reacted with typical dyspepsia. Leading the pack was the National Council of La Raza

(La Raza means “The Race,” by the way. Talk about Hitlerian). Raul Yzaguirre, the group’s president, who apparently had time to ask every Hispanic in the nation what he or she thought of Bush’s proposal the very day it was announced, declared: “Hispanic Americans are extremely disappointed with the president’s announcement today.”

Yzaguirre explained that Bush’s proposal didn’t offer a clear path for all current and future “undocumented immigrants” &045; i.e. illegals &045; to become U.S. citizens. Groups like La Raza, it seems, won’t be happy until crossing the border is the only qualification for citizenship.

While I’m much more sympathetic to the arguments from the right – in part because they’re actual arguments instead of fluffy-wuffy sentiment – I’m not sure anybody’s right on this one. In fact, I’m not sure anyone can be.

Illegal immigration is similar to issues such as gay marriage or Middle East peace. Such problems evolve over decades and the “facts on the ground” defy rational solutions on drawing boards.

With gay marriage, even if you’re against it, as I am, there’s no denying that gays are here, they’re never going away and they are forming marriagelike relationships every day. No law will change that and arguments about the way things ought to be have little relationship with the way things are.

When it comes to immigration, it’s very easy to say how things ought to be. But it’s very difficult to deal with things as they are. The fact is there are millions of illegal immigrants in this country. I agree they shouldn’t be here. I agree it’s grossly unfair to reward line-jumpers when there are millions of people all over the world playing by the rules waiting to get here legally. And I agree that President Bush’s plan does, in fact, reward line-jumpers.

The White House says it’s not an amnesty plan, but the end result of Bush’s proposal is to make it legal for people who are currently here illegally to stay here legally. That may not be as generous as La Raza wants, but that hardly means it’s not generous at all.

But what’s the alternative? Some voices on the far right suggest simply rounding up millions upon millions of illegals and sending them packing. Well, that’s simply not going to happen. First of all, most of these folks are already working here. Suddenly yanking them from their jobs isn’t a great economic policy. Even less realistic is the expectation that an already overextended government could do it if it wanted to. And even less realistic than that is the notion that any politician would even try.

So we have millions of facts-on-the-ground called illegal immigrants. Bush inherited them; he didn’t create this problem. His rather vague proposal for dealing with it, it seems, is to give them some basic legal protections and allow them to apply for citizenship while at the same time creating incentives for them to return home someday.

It’s not an ideal solution by any stretch. When Bush talked about something like this in 2001 &045; before 9/11 &045; the program was supposed to coincide with serious concessions from Mexico that would discourage the flow of new illegals by enforcing security more and open up the Mexican economy so that Mexicans could find work at home.

But at the end of the day, the question isn’t whether this is the best plan. Of course it isn’t (it may not even be good politics). The question is, does it deal with reality in a constructive way? My gut says, yeah probably. But it also says this mess is going to be with us for a long time.

(E-mail Jonah Goldberg at