The Angry Economist
UNITED STATES— It is becoming increasingly clear to me that immigration reform as an issue will not follow the legislative lifecycle as dictated by our leaders in Congress. As I write this, Republican members of the Senate are trying to push through a compromise deal that will give them a photo-op and a chance to say that they did something about illegal immigrants to their constituents come November. In other words, politicians on both sides of the aisle want to pass something and get the issue off the table.
The only problem with this approach is that any solution that comes out of Washington is only going to inflame the debate. That’s because our leaders are so far behind on this issue that their legislative replies are still too far in the middle to really give either sides supporters enough political satisfaction to go home feeling vindicated. Instead, they’re likely to grow more polarized in the days and weeks leading up to a national election something incumbents fear.
The central problem of the immigration debate is that it is political napalm. People feel very strongly about immigration, and will (and do) cross party lines to vote their true sentiments. Consider that Proposition 187 passed overwhelmingly in state where registered Democrats dramatically outnumber Republicans.
Though politics in Washington (and Sacramento) is usually a battle for the vital center, the immigration debate has enough supporters on either side to make a battle for the middle irrelevant. Thus, we have Democrats and Republicans running scared of a dissatisfied electorate. They want political cover, nothing else.
Beyond the divisiveness, the immigration debate has another potent ingredient that threatens the political status quo: true believers. On both sides, we have participants who have staked out the issue for years who are finally getting their fifteen minutes of fame. Basking in the spotlight, the last thing extremists for and against immigration reform want is a compromise that will kill their momentum. Representing sentiments at the grass roots, at the borders and in the barrios, the leaders of both sides WANT this confrontation to get what they consider rightfully theirs.
That is why, regardless of whether we get an immigration bill out of the Congress before the election or not, immigration will turn out to be the most important issue in this year’s mid-term election. The protests of late March 2006 touched a nerve in the electorate. Everyone is convinced that the status quo stinks, but what our leaders are proposing doesn’t sound much better. In exchange for some new border patrol officers and thoroughly unworkable new immigration regime, it looks like we’d also get something that sounds an awfully lot like the amnesty everyone says they don’t want.
By trying to calm the nation’s nerves with a compromise piece of immigration legislation, the Congress has inflamed them instead. What is likely to happen now is a national voter backlash similar to the one we saw after Gray Davis approved drivers’ licenses or illegal immigrants. Those who were here at the time tend to forget the fuel this illegal immigrant license bill added to the Governors recall. One of the first things Governor Arnold did when he elected to replace Davis was repeal this controversial law. Some claimed this action was the work of a racist Republican, but their arguments went nowhere with a guy who actually waited in line and went through the naturalization process himself.
If HE can do it, why can’t everyone else?
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