In Washington, a new gang has been born. The Gang of Eight on immigration is here to tell us that we have succeeded in not enforcing the law so persistently and thoroughly that now we have to give up all pretense.
The Gang of Eight, headlined by conservative star Marco Rubio, wants to amnesty the 11 million immigrants who are already here as a product of past nonenforcement in exchange for a promise of future enforcement.
Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform resolutely refuse to say the word "amnesty." They contend that the proposed package is not an amnesty because illegal immigrants have to go to the back of the line for a green card. But before that happens, they get "probationary legal status." As a practical matter, this is the amnesty.
Sen. Chuck Schumer states it with admirable clarity: "On Day One of our bill, the people without status [i.e., illegal immigrants] who are not criminals or security risks will be able to live and work here legally." You can't get more direct than that.
Once an illegal immigrant gets "probationary legal status," he has jumped irrevocably ahead of all those poor saps back in their native countries who want to come to the U.S. but for whatever reason were unwilling or unable to break our immigration laws to do it.
All indications are that this kind of "probationary" legal status matters more to illegal immigrants than an eventual path to citizenship. In an essay in the journal National Affairs, immigration expert Peter Skerry points out that 20 years after the implementation of the 1986 amnesty, only 41 percent of the 2.7 million people who got legal status under the program had gone on to become citizens.
So the Gang of Eight can make the path to a green card and eventual citizenship as long and onerous as it wants. It can make applicants not only learn English but speak in an affected patrician accent. It can make them do handstands and cartwheels. All of that will be irrelevant to the lived reality of formerly illegal immigrants who can become legal once the Gang of Eight principles are written into law.
The Gang's enforcement "triggers" affect only the path to citizenship. In principle, the enforcement provisions — requiring use of the E-Verify system for employers and establishing a system to monitor entries and exits from the country — are worthwhile. But only a naif would have much confidence in their timely and effective implementation.
If we've established a bipartisan consensus on anything during the past 25 years, it is that immigration laws don't matter. As Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies points out, Congress has already required the completion of an entry-exit system six times. To no avail. It passed a law in 2006 calling for the completion of a double-layer border fence. Also, to no avail.
In general, the Obama administration picks and chooses which elements of the immigration laws it wants to enforce through "prosecutorial discretion." Does anyone believe it will be zealous in effecting new enforcement mechanisms that are opposed by its base and resisted by employers and civil-liberties groups?
We've been here before, with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Rubio calls the 1986 law a "blanket amnesty," even though, on his terms, it wasn't unconditional or immediate. To apply for legal status, illegal immigrants had to pay a fee and prove that they had good moral character. If approved — and not everyone was — they had to wait 18 months before applying for a green card.
All of this was coupled with fearsome-sounding enforcement provisions to beef up security at the border and crack down on employers hiring illegal workers. In other words, in broad brush, the "blanket amnesty" of 1986 is indistinguishable from the bipartisan principles of 2013. Since the enforcement never happened, the 1986 law stands as a monument to bad faith.
Washington may be about to build another one.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and a variety of other publications. Read more reports from Rich Lowry — Click Here Now.