Immigration Reform, Risky Business for Congress

As a 26-year veteran of Congress, I am often asked to explain our system of government to members of foreign parliaments, college students and even high ranking members of our own federal civil service.

There is one fundamental feature of our legislative process that I always highlight: it is much easier to defeat something in Congress than it is to pass major changes in law.

In other words, the status quo prevails most of the time. A classic example is the current immigration law reform effort.

I predict that Congress, after much huffing and puffing, will not pass any significant immigration legislation this year.

Let’s take a look at the issue and the players and I think you will understand why I have come to this conclusion.

The House and Senate currently are heading down very different roads on the immigration issue.

The House passed legislation which calls for the construction of a 700-mile fence along our border with Mexico and makes it a crime for any person or organization like Catholic Charities to offer aid to someone who is in the country illegally (including providing food or temporary shelter).

The House bill does not contain any provision for a temporary guest worker program sought by President Bush or for a path for legalization for the 11 million illegal aliens currently in the country. This harsh approach led to massive peaceful demonstrations around the country by immigrants. The House bill has been condemned by leading Catholic clergy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has reported out a bill that provides for more border protection (but not a fence), a guest worker program that would admit an additional 400,000 immigrants a year for jobs (but without any right to apply for citizenship) and an earned legalization program for the 11 million illegals currently in the country providing they learn English, have a clean criminal record and pay a significant fine and any back taxes.

This latter group could apply under a process that would take as long as 11 years to complete. Current public opinion in the country is opposed to this legalization approach. This bill must still be considered by the full Senate.

Both political parties have problems with this issue.

Let’s start with the Republicans. A substantial bloc in the Republican Party clearly favors the House approach -- a border crackdown with no guest worker program and a commitment to expel illegal immigrants already here.

This approach is opposed by Republican business interests who support the guest worker program because they need a constant supply of immigrant labor (particularly in construction and restaurant operations) and by more moderate Republicans who fear harsh legislation will alienate the emerging bloc of Hispanic voters from the Republican Party in future presidential and Congressional elections, where Hispanics could be the swing vote.

President Bush is clearly in this camp, though in previous years he has backed away from immigration reform when confronted by the right wing of his own party. Interestingly, some conservative columnists support a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegals currently in our country because they otherwise would constitute a permanent underclass with no real stake in the future of our nation

This brings us to the Democrats, who have their own set of problems. Organized labor, a strong part of the Democratic coalition, is opposed to the guest worker plan because they feel it could depress wages for everyone else.

Also, some Democrats are fearful of embracing the earned legalization program (characterized by its opponents as an "amnesty"). These Democrats, mostly from southern and midwestern swing districts and states, are concerned that their Republican opponents, outside 527 anti-immigrant groups with lots of money to spend, and even the Republican Party itself (President Bush notwithstanding) will hammer them with the amnesty issue in the elections this fall if they support the McCain-Kennedy earned legalization approach.

Given these cross-currents, the path of least resistance is to do nothing. There is only one thing that could alter this situation: President Bush would in fact have to use his electoral capital in favor of a comprehensive immigration bill.

The President would have to actively work the Hill for such a bill and would need to commit that he and the Republican Party would not use this issue as a club against Democrats in the elections this fall. From time to time, former President Ronald Reagan would send a letter to Democrats who had sided with him on a tough vote on an issue opposed by the right wing of his own party, thanking them for their support. Democrats were then able to use these letters as a shield against attacks in the next election.

A bill could still emerge from all of this, but don’t bet on it. Maybe the next Congress, acting in a truly bipartisan way, will finally come to grips with this very divisive issue. Let’s hope so for the sake of the country.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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