Saturday, May 20, 2006

Nelson Declares Immigration Reform Dead

by Kyle Michaelis
All along, Sen. Ben Nelson has been quite upfront about his belief that a comprehensive immigration proposal would go nowhere in 2006. His constant refrain has been, "We have to secure the borders first." Well, with the U.S. Senate now set to pass an immigration bill that opens a pathway to citizenship for undocumented families, that theory stands to be tested.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
Congress appears headed toward a deadlock that will scuttle immigration reform this year, Sen. Ben Nelson said Friday.

If the Senate approves the comprehensive reform bill currently on its way toward enactment, that will lead to a House-Senate conference committee impasse, Nelson predicted.

“Nothing will happen,” the Democratic senator said...“People will come across the border in record numbers (to) get here while they can. And we won’t solve the problem this year.”

Nelson is not the only Senator raising this concern. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, with whom Nelson worked on his own immigration proposal, declared yesterday "The Senate should be ashamed of itself" for the bill it's advancing.

Now, I appreciate that Nelson has not so-explicitly laid the blame at the Senate's doorstep. It's important to remember that House Republicans' unwillingness to compromise will be just as much to blame for Congressional inaction as anything else. Moreover, President Bush - as a Republican President when Republicans control both houses of Congress - deserves a mighty share of the fault as well. This is what happens when a president has no authority, offers no leadership, and has had no domestic agenda for 5 years beyond making the rich richer.

And, although it's going to piss-off the American public - there is some question whether no bill in 2006 is truly worse than a bad bill that neither side cares for very much. Congress should not just go along to get along on an issue of this much importance. Sure, compromise is a good goal to have, but when it's not possible, it's only right that the decision be left to the American people. That's why we have elections, and - lucky for us - the next one's just around the corner.

To be honest, I'd like to see Nelson just as concerned with creating the best immigration proposal possible as with placating the House's right-wing majority. And, he should be more careful of the company he keeps with Senators such as Sessions who are, themselves, more concerned with Crusade than compromise.

Eventually, the immigration debate is going to come down to who we are as Americans and what our values truly are as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Nelson should take care to be on the correct side of that debate when it finally occurs.

For now, inaction may prove outrageous, costly, and even offensive. But, if a chasm exists so deep and wide, what choice do we have? Give it time and, eventually, the people's furor will give us all the answers that we need.

Such is the beauty (and the danger) of democracy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle - thanks for making this argument. However, I would say that what Nelson is exhibiting is old fashioned Nebraska common sense. Like him, I can't fathom why the president and the Republicans INSIST on wedding border security and immigration reform.
they are clearly seperate issues. Bill Frist has said he wants them tied together because immigration reform will not get done otherwise. That should tell you all you need to know.

Nelson is simply reading the tea leaves - Sure the Senate can pass a feel-good bill that makes everyone American and Chuck Hagel will campaign in 08 on that platform -but the House is entrenched. Nelson isn't siding with the House so much as recognizing their influence and he's saying - lets seperate the issues - do border security to stop the flood of illegal immigration and then deal with immigration reform- secure the boders then fight with the House.

Nelson is right - the worst possible scenario is that nothing gets done because Chuck Hagel and the GOP insisted on leaving no illegal behind. Nelson is more practical. He recognizes that we can secure the border while we debate visas and immigration. Otherwise - the status quo remains - and that is unacceptable.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


The fact that the House is so "entrenched" is exactly the reason why Nelson's insistence on compromise might prove disastrous. Compromise requires give and take. Yet, has the House shown any willingness to back-down from those provisions making it a felony to be in the country illegally? To my knowledge, NO! Senator Nelson has stated he's against such criminalization, yet his approach could well result in its becoming the law of the land.

You can debate the necessity of a comprehensive approach to immigration - particularly if you see border security as a true national crisis that demands immediate attention. But, considering the manner in which House Republicans have, themselves, wedded border security with immigration "reform", I am glad the Senate is challenging them with a true alternative that is more humane and reflective of our national character.

Until we see some indication that the House is willing to budge and make its bill less draconian, Nelson can not and should not be so eager to please. When you dance with the devil, the devil don't change - the devil changes you.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle - guess I touched a nerve. but you made my exact point. the art of compromise in Congress is between shades of gray - not black and white. the fact that the Senate will send over something so far different from what the house has done actually dooms the chance for compromise.

the House felony provision will be struck - for sure. even the house leaders are uncomfortable with it.

But you want the compromise to be between two very different approaches.

if the Senate passed Nelson's border security bill - the conference committee would report out a bill that allows for a barrier, increases penalties on employers, increases detention beds for law enforcement, doesn't rely on the military, and would not make illegal immigrants felons. One of the funniest things I've read in this entire debate was a criticism launched by Harry Reid that atacked Republicans for wanting to make illegal immigration illegal. Duh. it is already illegal. but the Congress isn't going to make it a felony. that's a red herring - a marker for the House to negotiate with.

Anyway - Nelson's position is a realist's position. You'll see.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


Nelson has won me over to the idea that focusing on border security is a reasonable first-step before undertaking comprehensive immigration reform. That doesn't make it the superior or even the preferred approach. Moreover, I am uncomfortable with the idea that the House is owed deference and concessions just because they passed their legislation first.

Of course, I am not personally in a position to speak to the inner thinkings and machinations of the House Republicans. You say the felony provision will be struck "for sure." If that is really the case, the leadership could come out and say as much, indicating that they too are serious about getting something done this year. Sensenbrenner has had every opportunity to do so this last week, but I'm yet to see it. They are playing their strongest hand - treating this issue like a politcal game of chicken - and I'm bothered by the implications should the Senate follow Nelson's advice by caving-in and flinching first.

If the American people want reform bad enough, the House and Senate can make a compromise work this year no matter what the Senate passes - and it may well look a lot like Nelson's proposal. I largely agree that Nelson's is a solid "realist's posititon", but so long as the House is still holding out Red Herrings as bargaining chips the Senate is practically obligated to call their bluff and put their own best foot forward.

Sadly, without more effective Presidential leadership, this whole discussion is probably pointless. Bush's schizophrenia on immigration - far worse than Hagel's overnight flip-flopping - has left a gaping black hole at the center of this debate from which very little light or hope of progress can escape.


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