THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE HAS FLIPPED in President Bush's favor. The public now firmly supports toughened border enforcement plus--and this is a big plus for the president--a system for letting illegal immigrants already in America earn citizenship. This has been Bush's position all along, though the president has been reluctant to trumpet it. The ones with the politically untenable position are Democrats who want an immigration issue (but not actual legislation) to use against Republicans in November, and Republicans who want merely to increase border security.
The upshot is that an immigration bill appears likely (but not certain) to pass when Congress returns from its Easter recess on April 24--and probably in a "comprehensive" form congenial to Bush and Republican congressional leaders. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have indicated they back this approach, not a bill simply calling for stronger border security.
The turning point came in March when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration measure that tied together border enforcement, a program for bringing "guest" workers into the country, and earned citizenship. That meant that broad immigration reform was viable in 2006. Several earlier polls, notably one conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas, had found potential public support for earned citizenship, and the committee's action bolstered that support.
Once the committee acted, "the polls, indeed the whole atmosphere, changed to the pro-immigrant side," says Jeffrey Bell, a Republican consultant working for La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights group. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California reversed herself and voted for the sweeping bill, as did Republican Arlen Specter, the committee chairman who had been uncommitted.
In a national survey in early April, the Washington Post/ABC News uncovered an astonishing level of backing for major reform. Asked whether they favored earned citizenship, only a guest worker program, or a sharp crackdown on illegal immigrants, 63 percent preferred earned citizenship, 14 percent a guest worker scheme, and only 20 percent for charging illegal immigrants with a felony and denying them work.
Earned citizenship would permit the 12 million immigrants living illegally in the United States to apply for citizenship. They would be required to work for six years, commit no crimes, pay back taxes, and learn English. Then and only then could they get in line to become citizens, a process that takes five years.
In the debate over immigration, those (mostly Republicans) favoring only beefed-up border enforcement had the upper hand initially. But that position lost much of its appeal after last December when House Republicans approved a bill that would enhance border security and make illegal immigrants guilty of a felony. Today, even some Republicans who voted for that bill say it could be politically harmful to their party by alienating Hispanic voters. Frist and Hastert pledged last week to block any felony provision from becoming law.
In the Senate, Democrats couldn't bring themselves to act decisively. They seemed to want to impede legislation and use the House bill to tag Republicans as anti-Hispanic. But when they balked at passing a bill just before the recess, it angered Hispanic groups that have been lobbying for a broad immigration measure. This pressure alone may force Democrats to relent and allow legislation.
But there is strong sentiment among partisan Democrats to hold tight and thwart efforts to pass a bill. They've put pressure on Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the architects of the Senate committee's bipartisan bills. Kennedy wants a bill passed, not an issue for the fall. Democrats have also urged Frank Sharry, a liberal Democrat who heads the National Immigration Forum, to back off from lobbying for a bipartisan bill.
For his part, Bush used his April 8 radio address to blame Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid for blocking a "promising bipartisan compromise on comprehensive immigration reform." He was referring to the Judiciary Committee bill. The president uses the word "comprehensive" as a euphemism for a measure that includes earned citizenship. He also uses the phrase "temporary worker program" as a proxy for earned citizenship.
Despite the support for his position, the president often appears defensive on the immigration issue. Last week, he was still trying to decide whether to jump aggressively into the debate and promote his position in speeches and in stepped-up lobbying of Congress. Bush was largely a spectator when the House and then the Senate Judiciary Committee dealt with the issue.
In his radio address, the president never mentioned the words "earned citizenship" or even the concept. He took pains to insist that his "temporary worker program" did not constitute amnesty for illegals. Amnesty, he said, would be "unwise because it would encourage others to break the laws and create new waves of illegal immigration. We must ensure that those who break our laws are not granted an automatic path to citizenship."
But the president did say America "must remain a welcoming society." And as he often does, Bush spoke of today's illegal immigrants as people who come to America for the right reasons. "It says something about our country that people around the world are willing to leave their homes, leave their families, and risk everything to come to America," he said.
When Congress returns, Bush may have no choice but to campaign energetically for passage of a broad immigration bill. "Republicans run Congress, and the pro-immigrant side has won the debate," says Bell. The situation is ripe for presidential intervention.
Bush has privately assured the pro-immigrant crowd he's on their side. But publicly he's endorsed the enforcement-only House bill and not the Senate measure. This has generated distrust of Bush's motives. So it's time for him to declare, loudly and publicly, what he wants--what he really wants. It's better enforcement, guest workers, and earned citizenship.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief (Crown Forum).