Congress reconvenes this week with Republicans having picked up an additional four seats in the House.
Over the holiday break, old and new members were interviewed about priorities for the new Congress. Close listeners might have noticed that a re-engineering of Social Security (search) has become the most controversial of the president's proposals, and that immigration reform, which dominated the news in the waning days of the last session, is no longer even on the wish list of many of the legislators who are speaking with the media.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (search) has promised to introduce a bill that would actually protect the country's borders very early in the new session. New congressmen and senators alike say that they are eager to get to the issue.
Those who are speaking make one thing clear: "immigration reform" means one thing to a growing number of Republican legislators and something quite different to the administration and a small cadre of congressman. And the two concepts could not be more at odds with one another.
Sensenbrenner now advocates most strongly for those who believe that immigration reform must be founded on borders that do what they are supposed to do. Most Americans would agree with him. When reports show that terror groups are beginning to favor the country's undermanned land borders and avoiding its ports, Americans are at precisely the same risks they faced in September of 2001. If four million people enter the country illegally every year (as Sen. John McCain's office has found), then what can terrorists do?
When the White House speaks of immigration reform, it always includes statements along the lines of "the system is broken," and "we should match every willing worker with every willing employer." To most Americans, this does not portend a country with functioning borders. It represents the end of America's borders, and the abolition of a labor market in which American workers have any kind of bargaining power.
The administration is able to get behind efforts to construct a security fence in Israel and militarize the borders of Iraq, demonstrating its belief that borders can be controlled with the right tools. It sees no conflict in backing these efforts even while it refuses to back completion of the Otay Mesa fence (search) in California and while members of the Border Patrol say privately that they have been ordered to "park the trucks."
No administration has ever proposed anything as radical as the president's "any willing worker" policy. If it becomes law, it will be the only immigration policy like it in the entire world. In its current form, there would be no numerical limit on the number of foreign workers American business could import, and no minimum wage that employers would have to pay them.
Almost all the people already in the country illegally would have the impediments to legal status removed, and they would then be able to apply for legal residency. Though not mentioned in the bill, legal residency allows a citizenship application (search).
More and more House members are taking a position that is more akin to Sensenbrenner's than to the administration's. But it's not Sensenbrenner's insistence on things like secure borders and safe driver's licenses that is dividing the Congress; a fair share of Democrats will tell you that what Sensenbrenner wants is only common sense. It is the administration's departure from the very concept of an American nation that has had such seismic effects on Capitol Hill.
It's unlikely that those who seek the immigration reform Americans want will back down. It's just as unlikely that the president, who seems prepared to go for broke in his second term, will retreat much from his own priorities. One side will have to compromise if immigration reform is to become law. When Congress gets down to the issue, it's the voice of Americans that will be the only thing that will affect the outcome.
Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of the soon to be published, "The New Immigration Law and Practice."