Not everybody relevant to the debate showed up, however. The seats reserved for Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao remained empty
“I believe the administration was not yet prepared to comment on the bills and needs some more time. We’re going to go ahead and do our work, and we’ll provide the momentum. It’s a matter of enormous importance,” was Specter’s reaction to the prominent absences.
“When the administration wants to chime in we’re ready to listen,” he said.
Specter’s words were encouraging to those who have been desperate for almost any change in the immigration status quo, a situation that has resulted in an illegal population numbering anywhere from 10 to 15 million souls — and perhaps 20 million, by some estimates.
Tucked into these, millions are thousands of Irish who want to follow in the path of earlier generations and make America home.
Specter reckons he can shepherd an agreed immigration reform package through Congress by year’s end, this despite the looming matter of the Supreme Court vacancy and the fact that some members of Congress, not least Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, want to long finger the matter into 2006, a mid-term election year.
The absence of the Bush administration people from the first hearing was not entirely surprising, though it did draw fire from the Washington Post.
“A better metaphor for the White House’s inability to articulate an immigration policy would be hard to find: So divided is the administration that its leading members aren’t even allowed to talk about the subject in public,” the Post chided in an editorial.
Still, a little skittishness at the executive mansion is to be expected. When he first mooted the idea of a guest worker program in the early days of 2004, some of the anti-immigration diehards in his own party accused President Bush of offering an amnesty.
Whatever about the merits or otherwise of a guest worker plan, an amnesty it isn’t and the version of it in the Cornyn/Kyl immigration bill — dubbed “mandatory departure” — sounds more like a mass deportation program, or as John McCain described it: “report-to-deport.”
So the Bush people keeping cover while the first words flew in the Senate Dirksen Building was likely just a tactic.
Sources suggest that the president and his people are more active on this issue than is currently apparent and are now in fact looking at immigration reform as a better horse to back than Social Security reform.
Be that as it may, the debate is taking shape anyway around the two primary bills, the aforementioned Cornyn/Kyl measure, and the bill crafted by Ted Kennedy and John McCain.
And not a minute too soon, given the chaos and near anarchy that is overwhelming the nation’s immigration system on a daily basis, according to Kennedy.
“The evidence is all around us. Exploited workers, divided families, deaths in the desert, fake documents, criminal smugglers, community tensions and public frustration. The American people are demanding that we mend this broken system once and for all, and we now have the best opportunity to do it in many years,” Kennedy said at the judiciary hearing.
Newspaper editorials favoring the bipartisan Kennedy/McCain approach have been critical of Cornyn/Kyl for placing too much emphasis on enforcement, not enough on making it possible for millions who already have jobs to somehow remain in the U.S., while forcing enforcement agencies to spend vast sums of money trying to track them down.
The Boston Globe, for example, thought the mandatory departure idea — which amounts to illegals surrendering, leaving the country and then attempting to get back in legally — as “a convoluted option that could encourage people to stay hidden.”
The Globe took the view that immigration and national security are separate issues that are being mixed up in the Cornyn/Kyl bill.
The Kennedy-McCain bill, the paper opined, offered “a better blend of security and opportunity.”
The Los Angeles Times focused on President Bush who, it stated, “has been talking for five years, somewhat halfheartedly, about the need to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.”
The clock was running out, the Times stated.
“The president needs to make the issue a priority now or the opportunity will have been lost…The current system combines a failure to control the borders with an insistence on treating needed immigrant workers as criminals.”
The Times was not impressed by the mandatory departure idea.
“That proposal might have sounded just dandy in some conference room on Capitol Hill, but it isn’t going to happen,” it opined.
Over in Arizona, where immigration is a burning issue along with the summer weather, a clearly impatient Arizona Republic reckoned that McCain and Kyl’s home state had been sucker-punched by Frist’s view that nothing would happen this year.
“The bipartisan guest-worker legislation offered by Arizona’s Sen. John McCain and Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy is a pragmatic approach that addresses immigration reform as a law enforcement, human rights, economic and national security issue. That bill has been waiting as Congress wallowed in denial,” the Republic roared in its editorial.
The Wall street Journal, meanwhile, reckoned that while the calendar said
2005, the immigration debate still seemed stuck in 1986, the year Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that criminalized the hiring of illegal aliens and boosted funding for Mexican border patrols.
“After nearly 20 years and numerous enforcement escalations, the undocumented immigrant population continues to grow — and restrictionist lawmakers continue to insist that throwing ever more money, men and material into border enforcement is the key to fixing the problem,” the Journal stated.
Suffice it to say, the Journal, which has long championed immigration from its conservative corner, decided that Kennedy/McCain was a “more promising” proposal than Cornyn/Kyl, both in terms of enhancing security and bringing order to the immigration system.
August is now upon us and Washington politics traditionally goes into high summer slumber. But the word is that with regard to immigration reform, the debate will gather momentum, though in the background, through the congressional recess.
“There is activity,” said a well-placed source.