Two days before the United States Senate passed S.2611, Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) delivered a speech on immigration policy at the Heritage Foundation. Pence offered what he called a "middle ground" proposal, a "no amnesty immigration reform" in which "securing our border is the first step." [Renewing the American Dream: The Real Rational Middle Ground on Immigration Reform, May 23, 2006]
The timing of Pence's speech and his position as chairman of the House Republican Study Committee combined to get his proposal the maximum media attention. So, what is the "middle ground" Pence wants to occupy?
The Krieble Foundation Genesis of Rep. Pence's Plan
On December 13, 2005, the same day the House of Representatives passed the landmark Sensenbrenner bill HR 4437, the Heritage Foundation offered its stage to Helen Krieble, head of the Vernon Krieble Foundation, to outline her plan to allow all illegal aliens in the U.S. to stay by having work permits issued by private sector labor brokers stationed in border towns.
Krieble employs guest workers under the H-2A visa program on her horse farm and complains of the excessive paperwork and long waiting lines involved.
Doubtless Krieble speaks for many employers in the agricultural sector who would prefer a more streamlined process.
But those visa safeguards, documents and regulations were put in place for a reason—like the rule that says the temporary worker has to go home after ten months and reapply from his home country.
Lawmakers who enacted the H-2A program had the quaint notion that a temporary workers should be, well…. temporary. The new plan envisioned by the Krieble Foundation and now endorsed by Pence would eliminate most of those nuisances.
Pence's proposal borrows heavily from the Krieble Foundation plan. Krieble's Heritage Lecture used some bizarre logic to reach its conclusions, including opposition to fences and walls on our borders.
In her lecture, "Private Employers and Border Control," she made a remarkable statement about walls. She said that the former Soviet Union built walls "when there were enemies on the other side of the wall."
Krieble is ignorant of the Berlin Wall's true purpose. Most people who lived through the Cold War remember that the Soviets built those walls to keep their own people IN, not to protect against invading Finns and Romanians.
Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev to "Tear down that wall!" to liberate people INSIDE the Soviet Empire, not as a condemnation of all walls and fences. For that reason, it is disconcerting to see Pence chose Krieble as his border security mentor.
A wall between Mexico and the US is required because Mexico hardly qualifies as a genuinely passive neighbor. Consider its inability to control the drug cartels now running the billion-dollar people smuggling business throughout the lawless border regions.
Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, Ciudad Juarez and other border towns are gang-controlled. Add to this the inconvenient fact that the Mexican government actively encourages its citizens to enter our country illegally. Mexico's peaceful intentions are open to serious question.
The Temptation of "Statesman's Disease"
Pence is not the first ambitious politician in Washington, DC to be seduced by the siren song of cheap labor, but his proposal is especially noxious because of its deceptive packaging.
Pence has now joined open borders advocates like Senators Larry Craig and John McCain. But because Pence wants to keep his conservative credentials he must label his plan a "no amnesty" immigration reform despite its stealth amnesty provisions.
The gambit is about as ingenious as McCain and Kennedy insisting their plan is not amnesty because the illegal aliens must pay a fine before getting their work permits and their path to citizenship.
By attempting to play statesman, Pence has legitimized defection from conservative ranks at the very moment conservatives need to unite behind the House's enforcement-first plan, HR 4437, written by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner.
HR 4437 passed the House in December by a huge margin with support from 90% of House Republicans. By jumping ship from HR 4437 in favor of a "comprehensive reform," Pence undermines Sensenbrenner and House conservatives fighting to uphold the enforcement-first strategy. The details of Pence's plan will not be known until he introduces his bill. But his May 23 Heritage speech offers an outline.
All of its key features depart from the enforcement-first principles of the Sensenbrenner bill.
If It Quacks Like a Duck
There are at least four reasons why Pence's plan does not qualify as "no amnesty immigration reform" or as a solution to our illegal alien mess.
Pence says he rejects amnesty and restates that several times in his Heritage speech, but like Bush, Kennedy and McCain, he proceeds to grant amnesty anyway. The Heritage Foundation defined amnesty in one of its 2005 papers as any plan that does not require illegal aliens already in the US to go home and apply for a work visa in order to enter the country legally. Pence asserts his plan meets this test by requiring all illegal aliens now employed to cross the Mexican border and then return one week later to the same jobs with their freshly minted work permits. Thus, he guarantees illegal aliens can keep their existing jobs and suffer only the inconvenience of a one-week trip to the border and back, but he insists this is not amnesty.
How this one-week-visa process is supposed to work for non-Mexicans from Peru, Pakistan and Ireland is not explained by Pence—another example of his plan's shallowness. The only criteria mentioned for being allowed to keep the same job is that the employer is satisfied with their work and welcomes their return if they pass a background check—a background check coordinated by the employer's agent, a labor broker.
Pence says nothing about the more than 3.5 million visa overstays from over 100 countries or how they get certified for re-entry to their existing jobs. Do they get the same "no-amnesty" benefits as Mexican citizens who walked across the border?
According to the Krieble plan that Pence has now adopted, this one-week turnaround will be guaranteed by giving that task to private sector labor brokers who will coordinate background checks and match each worker to the same job they have been working illegally if their employers wants them to return.
Presto! The problem of 12 million illegal aliens is solved through the marriage of free enterprise and modern computer technology. Pence admits that this virtual guarantee of keeping the same job is essential to the plan's viability because without that guarantee, none of the illegal workers would dare leave the job and cross the border to put his fate into the hands of a labor broker who gets his commission from the employer, not the worker.
It is anyone's guess whether Pence really believes this nonsense or is merely throwing a hair brained idea into the policy mix in hopes of getting some credit for whatever compromise might eventually emerge from the sausage grinder of congressional legislation.
It is certain Pence's idea of private sector labor brokers taking over the process of granting ten million work visas will not survive the laugh test much less close scrutiny by people attentive to national security.
Even Pence admits that illegal aliens who cannot pass a criminal background check will never come "out of the shadows" to submit to even this minimal scrutiny.
The Straw Man of Mass Deportation
He presented his proposal as a middle ground between the "two extremes" of mass deportations and amnesty, yet no one who spoke in support of HR 4437 in the floor debates has proposed or suggested mass deportations as part of a solution.
In fact, it is widely known that HR 4437 is explicitly based on the attrition strategy and not deportations. If the jobs magnet is turned off through vigorous enforcement of our labor laws, illegal aliens will stop coming. Those already here will go home over time. Pence's use of such flawed logic shows that either he has not studied the problem in depth or he is willing to be a Karl Rove stooge…or both.
No Concern about Lost Jobs and Lost Wages
Like most such plans, his proposal does not require that employers demonstrate that no American will take the job at the prevailing wage, only that the job was posted at a worksite. But at what wage was the job advertised?
Pence shows no awareness or concern about the serious problem of wage erosion over the past two decades created by the availability of illegal workers. He assumes that a job now held by a foreign worker is one no American wants. The problem of unemployed dry wall installers and subcontractors who used to do that work for $15 an hour but can't compete against illegal workers who do it for $8 does not concern him.
How to even calculate a legitimate prevailing wage in jobs where wages have been eroded for twenty years by illegal labor is an issue never addressed by any of the guest worker proposals. The Krieble Foundation, the Heritage Foundation or the CATO Institute have never discussed this critical issue.
Temporary Workers Have a Path to Citizenship
But it does. In his Heritage speech, Pence says that the period of the worker's stay in the U.S. is limited to two three-year terms. Then he adds this juicy morsel: After the six years, "the worker must choose" whether to return home or apply for legal residence as a citizen. It is only their term as guest workers that is limited, not their residence in the United States.
In Pence's plan it is the worker's choice to return home or not. There is no requirement that he apply for a green card from his native land. He might decide to stay and apply for a green card that leads to citizenship. (Memo to Mike Pence: This is called a "path to citizenship" and is the same option allowed under the Kennedy-McCain bill and the Martinez-Hagel bill passed by the Senate on May 25.)
White House Hubris vs. House Republican Survival
All of this would be a mere sideshow if it were not for the auspicious timing of the Pence plan.
Pence is entitled to propose anything he likes and to jump into the immigration debate with both feet.
Grover Norquist has been peddling the open borders snake oil among conservatives for years, and the CATO Institute and the Club for Growth have given cover to these rogue libertarians. But when a new stealth amnesty proposal is thrown on the table at the precise moment when House conservatives must unite against the Senate's foolishness, something is rotten.
House Republicans basically have two choices in dealing with the Senate bill. They can attempt to fashion a face-saving compromise with the Senate by way of a conference committee's negotiations, or they can say no to the very concept of another amnesty and require the Senate to bring an enforcement-first bill to the table.
Pence has made his choice. Like McCain and Rove, he thinks you can finesse away the issue of amnesty by redefining it. Allowing 12-15 million illegal aliens to become citizens is no big deal to them as long they can pretend we are securing the borders (wink, wink) against the next 15 million.
This passes for political shrewdness in our nation's capital today and demonstrates why the Republicans are in such a mess.
Pence and a few others in House leadership are desperately trying to find some way to pull the president's chestnuts from the fire of public outrage over our porous borders.
Bush has only himself to blame for the immigration blind alley he is in. He staked out his amnesty position in January 2004 and refuses to listen to the chorus of voices inside his own party telling him to change course.
The paltry 6,000 National Guard troops announced by Bush is a transparent ploy to disarm critics, not a serious plan to secure the border. Thus, it is an excess of hubris for the White House to suggest that House Republicans have some obligation to help restore the president's poll standings by swallowing the Senate's amnesty plan.
House conservatives' sole responsibility is to produce sound legislation that is good for the country and in tune with their constituents' values and interests. The Bush-McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill meets neither test, and Pence's conservative credentials are now tarnished by his misguided attempt to help Rove engineer a stealth amnesty.
When sound policy and smart politics happen to coincide, it is incredibly stupid to run in the opposite direction.
Pence is not stupid so he must have had something else in mind. Perhaps a few congressmen in very safe districts can go slumming with the open borders lobby and show bravado by insulting their base.
But for most House Republicans that kind of thing is a luxury they cannot afford in 2006. It will lead to disaster
*Marcus Henry [e-mail him] is the pseudonym of a veteran observer of Washington, DC current event. He worked on Capitol Hill during the Reagan Administration.