In 2006, with Republicans in control of the Senate, an immigration bill that was anathema to most Republicans passed the Senate by a filibuster-proof margin. Now, oddly enough, with Democrats in charge, the Senate is likely to approve an immigration bill--call it Kyl-Kennedy--that from a Republican perspective represents a major improvement over the earlier bill in almost every conceivable way.
We have three people to thank for this. The first is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who in January set in motion the process that led to the bipartisan compromise on immigration reached last week. The second is Arizona Republican senator Jon Kyl, who strongly opposed last year's bill but basically wrote this year's. The third is Democratic senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted a bill rather than an immigration club with which to bash President Bush and Republicans, and was willing to make concessions to get one.
Assuming the measure passes in Congress--a dicey assumption at this point--it should save Republicans from further erosion of support among Hispanics. This is crucial to Republican prospects for holding the White House in 2008 and recapturing Congress. The legislation will also give congressional Democrats a legislative achievement to tout. And it may give Bush, long an advocate of immigration reform, a political boost and jack up his approval rating.
But don't be confused about whose bill this is: It's not the White House's. Soon after he became Republican leader, McConnell summoned the Republican senators most involved in the immigration debate. His first question was whether they wanted to enact a bill in 2007. They did.
After a few preliminary meetings, the senators asked if the White House wanted to be actively engaged in negotiations to fashion new legislation. The answer was yes. So two cabinet members, Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security and Carlos Gutierrez of Commerce, joined the sessions. And Chertoff became an especially important player.
The McConnell strategy next called for negotiating with Kennedy. Why Kennedy? Three reasons. One, he's more interested in making progress on the issues that are dear to his liberal heart than he is in exploiting those issues for political gain. Criticize him if you will, but Chuck Schumer he's not. Two, immigration reform is dear to his heart. Three, a bill without Kennedy's backing would have no chance of passage.
Republicans and conservatives may be unwilling to acknowledge it, but Kennedy is a towering figure in the Senate. If he's on your side, most Democratic senators will fall in line behind you. And on immigration, the major Hispanic and immigrant groups are very unlikely to buck Kennedy since he has been their most important ally in Congress for more than a generation.
The drive for immigration reform by Senate Republicans was premised partly on the understanding that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country are not going to be rounded up and deported. Thus, they must be dealt with as permanent residents. Another premise was that the public is demanding action on immigration. "I just finished a tough campaign a few months ago and if there was any message from Arizona voters, it was do something about illegal immigration," Kyl said.
Restrictionists agree with Kyl on border security. What they fail to understand is that a bill merely beefing up security cannot pass either a Democratic or a Republican Congress. Restrictionists actually get the kind of border buildup they want in the Kyl-Kennedy bill. Their objection is to what comes with it: the immediate "work authorization" allowing the 12 million to be legally employed, visas permitting them to remain indefinitely, and a path to citizenship.
What do Kyl and his colleagues get besides enhanced border security that includes 370 miles of fence, 200 miles of vehicle barriers, and all kinds of technology to thwart border crossings? In short, what do they get that wasn't in last year's bill? A lot.
The most striking gain is the "trigger" proposed by Republican senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. It requires that all measures to secure the border be in place and functioning before any other immigration reforms are implemented, such as bringing in 400,000 temporary foreign workers and issuing visas to illegals. Chertoff said it might take 18 months to get all the security improvements in place, but that's wildly optimistic.
Regarding temps, Kyl emphasized that their stints in the United States will be "literally temporary." They must leave after two years, stay away for a year before returning, and won't be eligible for citizenship. Hispanic groups are angry about this.
Another breakthrough came in limiting "chain migration." For decades, even distant relatives of legal immigrants have been given preference in coming here. The new legislation adds a complicated point system that would give the educated and skilled a better chance of entering the United States.
And while the bill offers the possibility of citizenship for illegal immigrants, it's hardly guaranteed. Once the border is certifiably secure, an illegal must qualify for a four-year visa and later renew it for another four years. Then the immigrant must return to his home country to get a green card, which allows him to return and opens the path to citizenship. Meanwhile, there's a $5,000 fine to pay, plus the requirement to learn English. When those and other conditions are met, the person is permitted to go to the back of the legal immigrant line and wait.
The immediate response of immigration critics was Pavlovian. It's an amnesty bill, they said. But allowing those who are here illegally and aren't being deported to stay is, at worst, a kind of temporary amnesty. They must qualify for visas or, a White House official says, "they'll be deported."
Though the amnesty charge is sure to be repeated again and again, it may have lost much of its sting. At least Republicans should hope so. They desperately need to put their ugly and bitter debate on immigration behind them. The Kyl-Kennedy bill gives them a chance to do just that.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.