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The GOP and Illegal Immigration: It Begins With The Fence

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As soon as the House and Senate GOP have their leadership teams in place, and soon after the lame duck session ends, the 250 House and Senate members should repair to a conference center somewhere for a long conversation on illegal immigration leading to a consensus position.  Certainly there will be outliers, but an ongoing bloodletting over the issue is the only major obstacle in the path to return to majority status.  An ongoing focus on the issue is found at Powerline, and though I am unwilling to simply credit Tamar Jacoby’s take on the subject, she is generally correct that the issue of illegal immigration did not deliver a wave of support for GOP candidates who thought it would. 

I have been a skeptic of the power of the issue based on last fall’s special election in which Congressman John Campbell easily bested Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist depsite national focus on and support for Gilchrist by the anti-illegal immigration movement.  Once the promise of border security was delivered via the fence legislation, the issue lost a great deal of its pull because border security is primarily what the center-right wanted.  Regularization of the nation’s millions of illegals along common-sense lines such should follow the fence’s construction –or at least robust beginning of construction.  If the GOP avoids plainly inequitable proposals such as the grant of social security benefits for the wages earned while illegally in the country or a path to citizenship for those who do not return first to their home countries, the comprehensive legislation can be worked out quickly.

And it should be, but the construction of the fence is a very big deal.  It is a symbol of seriousness about border security, and also a symbol or responsiveness to the demands of the electorate.  The fencing is something the voters want to see done, and done soon. Their demand was met rhetorically, and now it has to be fulfilled in reality.

I think many Republicans fail to understand just how significant the fence is, and of the crucial necessity that the Adminstration get it underway and soon.  There should be a point man or woman at DHS –accountable to Secretary Chertoff– and a very public, very transparent accounting of where the fence is going and how much has been constructed.  Delays due to excessive planning will be interpreted as feet-dragging, and a bait-and-switch in the making.

Advocates of regularization should recognize this dynamic as well.  If the fence goes up and genuine border security emerges, the public will support rational regularization.  But if Democrats attempt to spike the fence or the Adminstration attempts to pass off 100 miles as a down payment on 700, the issue will flare again.  “Virtual” fencing gets zero credit from the public.  They have been promised the real deal, and seeing will be believing.

If the Adminstration cannot get a few hundred miles of double fencing in place in a matter of months, it will invite the sort of withering and constant criticism from the anti-illegal immigration absolutists that will drain support from a comprehensive approach.  My conversation on the fence with Tony Snow on Thursday last was not what I expected, but hopefully the DHS is getting its act together quickly and will have the transparency in place soon.


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