The National Football League’s first-round draft picks don’t always live up to their teams’ expectations. Sometimes players who initially looked promising lack an instinct for the game on the professional level, aren’t able to compete in a more aggressive environment, or they simply weren’t good enough to be there in the first place.
The same is true of legislation in Congress. First-draft bills are often appealing at first glance but don’t hold up under the compromising, relentless deal-making process that is Capitol Hill.
But a number of long-time politicos and lawmakers say a “sweeping” new immigration reform measure passed by the House last week not only contains the most promising changes in U.S. immigration law in a decade, it has rock-solid provisions that supporters believe will go a long way toward ending many of the nation’s border problems.
Perhaps more important, the House team also has the home-field advantage of having the support of millions of Americans worried about future terrorist attacks and fed up with Washington’s tolerance of illegal immigration. All told, it may be enough to score an upset victory against a Senate known for its zone defense of immigration-reform measures.
What the bill is
The measure “is a sweeping enforcement bill that will, if it becomes law and is implemented … dramatically reduce the illegal immigration population in this country, and it will secure our borders from future invasions,” says Bay Buchanan, chairman of Team America, a political action committee founded by Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., head of the House Immigration Reform Caucus. “It is more than any of us working in this movement could have imagined only weeks ago.”
That’s not an understatement. For years, immigration reformers, led by Tancredo and his 90-odd member caucus, have pushed for many of the same provisions contained in last week’s bill, formally known as The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Act of 2005. But they were either shut down at the line of scrimmage or thrown for losses.
This time, things were different. Before the House even began discussing the measure, Coach Tancredo had a meeting with his caucus players, laying out strategy and emphasizing that, with teamwork, they could make or break any immigration legislation that made it onto the field.
Part of that strategy was letting the other side know the caucus – which contains nearly one-fourth of the entire House membership – would vote as a block, forming a power wedge that could be used on offense or defense, depending on the direction of the game.
It wasn’t an idle threat. One lawmaker had said recently that Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of civilian border-watch group Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, would have beaten John Campbell, the Republican who won a recent special U.S. House election in California, were it not for an early absentee vote favoring Campbell. And a second congressman has asked Tancredo not to run an independent against the GOP candidate in another special House election coming up in California to replace Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned last month after admitting he had taken bribes from defense contractors.
The strategy paid off in a big way, giving Tancredo, his caucus and other longtime immigration reformers a sweet victory.
Overall, the bill was “a marker that we have put down, and it’s the first one since I’ve been there that is designed to begin to establish a Republican policy on immigration reform,” Tancredo told WorldNetDaily in a telephone interview from his congressional district outside Denver. “From that standpoint, we’ve made great strides.”
He was particularly happy that 36 Democrats joined majority Republicans in passing the bill. And he also acknowledged some surprises in the legislation. The biggest? “The wall,” Tancredo said of the bill’s authorization to build nearly 700 miles of new double-layered fence along key portions of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’ve been talking about that for years, but really it’s only come up in serious consideration in the past few weeks,” he said, noting congressional analysts put the cost of the fence at about $1.5 million per mile.
Tancredo envisions a fence similar to the section near San Diego: two layers topped with barbed wire and complete with saturation lighting and sensor technology. He says while he still would prefer a fence along the entire border, the added mileage will at least enable the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs officials to channel more resources into a smaller area, thus enhancing enforcement capabilities.
The public, which has for years been on the opposite side of the administration and most politicians regarding illegal immigration, supports the idea of a fence along the entire border by a 2-to-1 margin. In a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they would back the idea, while three of four said a politician’s stance on immigration will influence the way they vote in coming elections.
The bill – which officially was authored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee – also contains a provision that, for the first time, actually criminalizes the act of breaking into the country illegally. Right now, it is a civil penalty.
Initially, Sensenbrenner’s legislation would have made illegal immigration a felony, but after some consultation on the matter, he opted to lower the penalty to a misdemeanor, a move that angered some Republicans but one Tancredo said he supported.
“He (Sensenbrenner) realized that if the penalty remained a felony, each illegal alien would be entitled to a whole range of legal assistance – court-appointed attorneys, the right to a jury trial,” Tancredo said, noting such a provision would instantly logjam the court system.
And there was no small amount of politics involved with keeping Sensenbrenner’s felony provision. Opponents of the overall reform bill wanted it left in, Tancredo told WND, “because they knew it would be a deal-killer in the Senate if that passed.”
The legislation also requires employers to verify the citizenship or legal residency status of all employees.
“As jobs become more difficult to attain, illegal aliens living here will start to return home on their own,” Buchanan said.
Finally, the bill gives more authority to local law enforcement authorities to arrest and detain illegal aliens. That provision not only helps the over-stretched Border Patrol, it also pre-empts rules passed by local governments prohibiting their police and sheriff’s deputies from apprehending suspects based solely on their immigration status, a policy that that has made certain municipalities so-called “sanctuary” cities that critics say aid illegal migrants.
What the bill is not
An important part of the House bill, says Tancredo, is that it does not provide any amnesty for illegal aliens. In particular, he says, there is no provision to establish a so-called “guest worker” program, a measure favored by President Bush and moderate Republicans that would give illegal aliens legal status to remain in the country for a certain amount of time provided they had jobs.
Tancredo and other immigration reformers believe that amounts to little more than a de facto amnesty – a position the White House disputes – which is why it was not included in the House bill. However, he believes Senate Republicans and Democrats will fight hard to get it back in during conference.
“The Senate will try to water down” the entire piece of legislation, Tancredo said, “but whether or not they will be successful is entirely speculative right now.” While he knows “we will face a guest worker bill at some point next year,” he thinks momentum is on his side and, based on the strong support for a set of immigration reform proposals once considered, pre-9/11, too extreme are now becoming more mainstream.
“It’s possible [the Senate] may have to offer ‘guest worker’ as a stand-alone bill,” rather than keep it “a part of the current immigration bill,” he said.
Either way, Tancredo says he believes President Bush “will sign the measure.”
For many immigration reformers, the bill can’t be signed into law soon enough. The Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan group based in Washington, D.C., that studies the issue, says there are currently some 35 million immigrants residing in the U.S., about 13 million of them illegally. That’s the highest number per capita in American history, or “two and a half times the 13.5 million during the peak of the last great immigration wave in 1910,” CIS explained in an analysis.
“This bill includes at least four of the half-dozen or so most important missing tools to slow the flow of new illegal immigration and to gradually cause the current illegal population in this country to begin to voluntarily go back home,” says Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a non-partisan organization that lobbies for a reduction in “mass population growth.”
“This bill is not perfect and leaves several key tools yet to enact,” Beck continued. “But if the Senate will pass this without adding any guest worker or amnesty provisions, and if the president will implement the law, [it] would end most incentives for illegal immigration.”
The Senate is scheduled to take up the measure in February, and while House supporters say they’ve already won a major legislative victory, they know a larger battle looms ahead.
As for Tancredo, he’s still no first-round draft pick for the GOP. But he knows he’s come from behind to win the immigration reform playoffs. Now he’s got his sights set on a Super Bowl victory.