Lead, Follow - Or Get Out Of The Way
Looking at the prospects for immigration reform this summer calls to
American political thinker Yogi Berra: "It's deja vu all over again."
As a rule, when the House and Senate have passed even slightly
to the same purpose, there is a conference committee that works out
In modern times, there have been three truly important conferences on
bills: in 1986, 1990, and 1996. One would think the lessons of each of
conferences would be applied to the current crisis.
But curiously, only the 1986 experience is cited much these days. The
obvious -- opponents of both amnesty and that term of art, 'earned
like to remind people that the 1986 act promised a one-time-only
immigration sins, that amnesty was sold as a measure never to be
because enforcement of employer sanctions would essentially eliminate
thereafter. Proponents of the pending Senate bill like to recall 1986
of triumph, however, an example of a bipartisan compromise rather than
Why not recall the 1990 and 1996 conferences, as well? For the same
don't like to be reminded of being wallflowers at high school dances,
miss IPO stock they bought just before the dot.com bubble burst.
But there are far more similarities than differences between all four
circumstances, this year and in the three precedents. The legislative
both 1986 and 1996, and to a degree, 1990 were all prefigured by the
of bipartisan blue ribbon Commission reports -- the Hesburgh Commission
Congress in 1981 to enact an amnesty, employer sanctions, and increases
immigration; and the Jordan Commission whose reports from 1994 through
largely set the table for the immigration debate, from assimilation
quaintly, "Americanization") to visa management.
But the political dynamics that threaten comprehensive immigration
as Republican control of Congress this year, were all developed in
blue ribbon recommendations over a full generation ago. And yet the
political and policy forces have hardly changed at all -- and the
advocated by Hesburgh and Jordan continues to make sense, if Congress
to see the way.
In 1981, the usual suspects of the immigration debate made their usual
Hesburgh recommended a three-fer (amnesty, sanctions, and legal
the consensus among immigration lawyers, organized liberals, and
libertarians was that they wanted two out of three, the amnesty and the
increases, but not the necessary third of the deal: no sanctions. So
their feet as the political climate turned against them.
In the end, legal immigration increases were taken out of the bill, and
which was finally enacted in 1986 was less generous than the one
the Hesburgh Commission, which was in fact legislatively available from
Likewise, the sanctions that were linked to that more generous amnesty
harsh than the provisions finally enacted in 1986, along with a more
Most legislative professionals today were not there for this ancient
years ago, but many were there for the 1996 fiasco. Again, the dynamic
-- in 1994 and 1995, the Jordan Commission (full disclosure, I was its
director) recommended a carefully balanced set of enforcement measures
for legal immigration that focused on LPR spouses and minor children,
Simply because this involved a set of choices -- more of this, and less
all of these, and none of those -- the organized immigration lobbies
to oppose "comprehensive immigration reform." It is an enduring irony
of the immigration debate that 'comprehensive immigration reform' is a
changes meaning with every debate. In the early 1980s, it meant
sanctions and legal immigration increases -- and the usual suspects
it, before they were for it.
In the mid-1990s, it meant testing worksite verification based on the
Number, AND 150,000 more visas a year for spouses and kids of legal
and the organized immigration lobbies were against that genuinely
Now it means a complicated system for 'earned legalization' (a term
than 'amnesty' because it is literally unheard of, the political
of the above'), and a guest worker program in which every "temporary"
worker is eligible for a green card: so now 'comprehensive immigration
something to favor again.
Yet the lesson of the 1996 debacle shouldn't be glossed over.
Jordan Commission's recommendations focused their efforts on the
the legal immigration system had no problems that actually needed to be
it's priorities were just fine the way they were, because it was
that had to be addressed. There were high-fives exchanged in halls of
(I saw them) when legal immigration reform measures were defeated in
Senate in early 1996 -- although it took open opposition by Jordan
Bruce Morrison and Bob Hill to finally remove Prop 187 from the House
In the end, the reason so few legislative strategists who now support
immigration reform" will publicly recall the 1996 experience is because
many were so obviously wrong. They miscalculated. The worst
1996 reforms (the aggravated felony provision, the 3 and 20 year bars)
in the conference committee not by pro-immigration activists favorite
subcommittee chair Lamar Smith, but by the activists' own champion, the
of the Melting Pot" himself, then-Senator Spencer Abraham, shortly
When a political coalition miscalculates, and cannot get its champions
re-evaluation is a good idea.
So it is the 1990 experience that warrants a second look. Unlike either
1996, the 1990 Act's passage was a success -- a 40% increase in annual
legal immigration. Like 1986, much of what the 1990 Act did was based
Commission (although, speaking as the former press secretary of its
in the House, we gave 'em no credit at all). Unlike 1996, the
was not based on a fundamental political miscalculation.
But 2006 is different. The House-Senate differences are considerably
those between the respective bills in 1986, 1990, or in 1996.
Still, the mechanism is remarkably like the summer of 1990. That year,
chair Alan Simpson kept pointedly reminding then-House chair Bruce
Morrison was running for governor in Connecticut and would not be in
following year, while Simpson was staying in the Senate -- and did not
that bad. He could wait.
Which is the end-all and be-all question for immigration reform in the
2006: is it smart to wait?
Quietly -- and sometimes not so quietly, e.g., Frank Sharry's piece in
ILW.com -- many proponents of the Senate bill openly
failure to pass the amnesty/guest worker deal will cost the Republican
in the House. Then, some of these folks purr, the Senate bill will
Democratic House: the day of Jubilee, just over the horizon.
What rarely enters into this calculation is the district by district
informs the actual House Republican strategy, which is why their
considerably. Remember -- Senators get votes by the millions,
by the thousands -- and the Speaker of the House, by twos and threes.
That is why House Republican leader John Boehner (who voted against the
bill when it passed the House last December) has come around to a
the Senate package, and why the House conservative alternative, the
contains no 'earned legalization'.
The Pence proposal, like the debate as a whole, tends to confuse
with new guest workers, and excludes legal immigration increases
it is clearly a hopeful sign -- all the more so when, as most
that a House-Senate conference will likely have to write a bill from
In those circumstances, saying that those whom you need to pass
acting like "a wounded beast" isn't necessarily the smartest and most
far-sighted political strategy, particularly when they just might have
approach to holding onto power.
That is why it is the 1990 experience, not 1986 or 1996, which might
best insights for sharp strategy this summer.
One characteristic that strikes observers about the Senate bill is how
and unwieldy it is. Political pros who read it come away with an
that it was largely driven by requests (demands?) from nearly every
interest group perceived to have clout, in a transparent strategy of
to bargain away this time, so as to keep... what, exactly?
In this sense, the 2006 strategy seems to have learned something from
In 1996, a key Republican staffer explained to me why the final
so harsh: "Once the legal immigration cuts were eliminated, we saw no
to compromise. And nobody asked us to."
But is that the right lesson?
In 1990, the key to enacting any bill at all was not to have lots to
although of course horsetrading is essential to legislating. The real
that there is something peculiar about the organized immigration
it is incapable as a group of making choices.
Without choices, there will not be a bill -- and without a bill,
are betting on a political outcome (Republican loss of the House,
Senate) which is not only not a sure thing, aiming at it ensures that
long memories will remember long, with long knives.
Throughout the summer of 1990, just as now in the summer of 2006,
staff sounded out interest groups in what are called 'pre-conference'
The purpose was to sort out just what was so important that the House
concede it to the Senate, so that the Senate (particularly Alan Simpson
Kennedy) would recognize that, if there was to be the largest increase
legal immigration since the 1965 Act itself, the Senate would have to
whatever the House was standing firm on.
Obviously (perhaps not so obviously, to those who advocate rather than
there quickly comes a time when it is necessary to make a concession to
and then to stand by the deal and defend it to those who kibitz that
concession was too much and that one was too little. Yet failing to
united front to someone -- like Simpson then, and perhaps BOTH
Spector now -- who is not bluffing, guarantees failure.
So what actually got us to the 1990 deal -- arguably, the most
negotiation of the past -generation - was refusing to constantly
its supporters and the representative of its beneficiaries.
Consider the dynamics of this summer.
The original strategy, going back to the "Grand Bargain" between
the Catholic Conference of Bishops, and the National Immigration Forum
during President Bush's first term (none of which actually moves any
House Republican Caucus, which some noted at the time), was to pass an
a guest worker program together, with the President's wholehearted
was supposed to just slink away, evaporating in the sunlight of such
When some of us pointed out that the President never did support this
in fact this wasn't a plan at all (since proponents never came clean
and that in fact the President never did have a "plan" of his own at
we were dismissed, rather than engaged. But to govern is to choose --
try NOT to do, after all, that's somebody else's problem.
By last summer [see "It's not going to happen": ILW.com August 22,
it had become clear that, just as happened leading up to the passage of
1986, the tide of public sentiment was not running in favor of those
reforms that were getting ever less favorable.
Now the House is committed to "enforcement-only" or "enforcement-first"
legislation, but this is at least partly a political smokescreen.
To be sure, there is considerable opposition to ANY immigration bill
additional permanent residency to anyone, but as the Jordan Commission
and as even (in their inimitably complex manner) proponents of
assimilation moves many from the immigration skeptic column into open
support... for LEGAL immigration.
Which requires choices, and distinctions: legal is better than illegal,
is better than temporary.
And yet those choices and distinctions have not yet driven the
Consider just two: the private sector role in worksite verification,
spouses and minor children whose MINIMUM wait has increased by two
months just since May.
It will be increasingly difficult for immigration advocates to ignore
that, if only because the Senate bill treats illegal aliens and new
better than legal immigrants, a huge political liability in such an
The hearings that will commence immediately after Independence Day
opportunity for both sides to consolidate their base of support, which
necessary to have any flexibility at all.
And as the 1990 experience shows, for supporters of the Senate bill to
they will likely have to abandon any attempt to please those who cannot
not make choices.
Bear in mind, neither Senate Majority Leader Frist nor his Republican
of which voted AGAINST the Senate bill) wants to lose either House over
Still, it's not all bleak for those who want genuinely comprehensive
reform (as opposed to the Senate version). The great weakness of the
crowd is political, if only folks would look.
In newspaper circles, there was a famous dispute in the letters column
the term "Nestoring". A gentleman named Nestor wrote a letter to the
Post in which he stated that since at the time the top highway speed
mph, he always drove that speed in the far left lane, where the road
secure in the knowledge that anyone who sought to pass him in 'the
would have to be breaking the law. A veritable tidal wave of letters
as drivers alternately scoffed or praised Mr. Nestor for his stubborn
on the letter of the law -- or his dangerous fanaticism, take your
It wasn't until a state trooper wrote in to explain that the reason why
lane is 'the passing lane" is to ensure a safe flow of traffic by
a safety valve for those going faster than others, regardless of the
(which is often slower than 55 mph, after all). So Mr. Nestor was
the law since his purpose in being in that lane was not to pass, that
As no less than Thomas Jefferson pointed out, this is the oldest
politics: "... which Solon and Lycurgus answered differently. Do we
citizens to the law, or the law to our citizens?" It is particularly
intriguing to see movement conservative support for 'enforcement first"
the likes of Reagan education Secretary Bill Bennett and onetime Labor
Secretary nominee Linda Chavez, since the one (Bennett) prominently
worksite verification in 1994, and the other (Chavez) withdrew her
nomination because she had employed someone unauthorized to work.
The lesson for immigration reform advocates is that enforcement-only,
who think enforcement excludes the private sector and those who
illegal aliens with guest workers, as well as those for whom legal
immigration reform is an afterthought, are all a bit more like Mr.
than they might think:
following a rule that does not include all factors. They're basically
A deal is still possible, if both sides want one and are willing to
but somebody is going to have to get out of the passing lane to make
As Yogi Berra himself said: "It's not over -- till it's over."
About The Author
Paul Donnelly writes about immigration and citizenship, and advises Lookout Services and UniteFamilies.org.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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