Seeing Ghosts

The Republican Party sees a ghost every time they think about the immigration. Its name is Pete Wilson.

A decade ago, Pete Wilson ran on a platform to control illegal immigration into California. He won the election, but his political opponents spent the rest of term as governor calling him everything from anti-Hispanic to a racist. Governor Wilson was not re-elected and has spent the past ten years in political Purgatory. The Republicans, led by George Bush and Karl Rove, see the specter of Pete Wilson in every move they make on immigration.

As a result, Bush’s Monday night speech addressing immigration was a collection of centrist platitudes that pleased only those who think sparingly on the issue. His “comprehensive” solution was carefully designed to give a little bit to everybody, leaving in place the structural incentives for a continued flood of illegal immigrants.

We have seen this before. Ronald Reagan took the same approach in the 1986. Then illegal immigrants were estimated to be one million, though his general amnesty resulted in nearly three million new applications for citizenship. Today, estimates of illegals in the country range between twelve million and twenty-five million.

America’s political elites are so frightened of losing the fastest growing ethnic block of voters that they will do virtually anything not to allow themselves to be painted as “anti-Hispanic”. As such, the immigration bills coming out of the US Senate favor amnesty over security and leave the incentives for illegals to continue sneaking across the boarder.

My first reaction to the Bush speech was that he took a practical approach to the problem. But the more I listen to the hard liners on the issue the more they seem to have a point. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado congressman who is a leader of the “get tough” House approach, says that if we focus initially on amnesty, it will be 1986 all over again. The government bureaucracy will move mountains to establish new citizens (citizens who vote Democrat, the natural allies of the bureaucracy) and enforcement of boarder laws will again be left for tomorrow. I suspect he is right.

Of course none of this would be a problem if the Democrats refused to put political gain ahead of border security. But that is too much to expect. So the result is that Republicans play defense, the Senate tries to thread the needle between security and amnesty, and a majority of American citizens becomes increasingly frustrated with Washington’s inability to deal with illegal immigration.

Rove and Bush worry about the ghost of Pete Wilson descending on the Republican Party. But they may have a bigger problem than the Democrats reflexively accusing them of being anti-Hispanic. Most Republicans support immediate enforcement of present laws and increased border security. But in offering “smart cards”, “hi-tech fences” and a smattering of National Guard troops on the boarder, Rove and Bush may have a greater risk of tearing apart their own party.