If there were an organized opposition to comprehensive immigration reform -- and there really isn't, compared to the political/business/activist/lobbying complex in favor of it -- the opposition would pound daily on the key weakness at the heart of the Senate Gang of Eight bill. That weakness is simple. The bill proposes to legalize 11 million currently illegal immigrants before imposing greater border security and workplace enforcement. In that, the gang's priorities are different from the American people's. An opposition would remind the public of that, often.
Many polls have shown that voters favor eventual legalization and a pathway to citizenship for those now here illegally. But when Americans are asked whether legalization should come before or after greater security measures, they overwhelmingly favor security first.
Just look at a new poll by Fox News. The pollsters began by asking what the government's policy toward the 11 million should be. Should they be deported? Allowed to remain in a guest worker program? Or should they be permitted to "remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements, like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check?"
The results were overwhelming. Sixty-six percent said the immigrants should be allowed to remain in the country and eventually qualify for citizenship.
Then Fox asked a follow-up: "Do you favor or oppose requiring completion of new border security measures FIRST -- before making other changes to immigration policies?" (Emphasis in the original.) The results were even more overwhelming: 73 percent favored enforcement first, versus 20 percent who were against.
The numbers were similar across all demographic and political groups. Democrats favored security first by 69 percent; Republicans by 82 percent and independents by 71 percent. Men favored security first by 77 percent; women 70 percent. Whites favored it by 73 percent, nonwhites by 74 percent. People with college degrees favored security first by 69 percent; people without a degree by 76 percent.
People under age 35 favored security first by 64 percent. People age 35-54 favored it by 78 percent, and people above 55 favored it by 75 percent. People who make less than $50,000 a year favored it by 71 percent; those above $50,000 by 74 percent. Finally, people who call themselves liberals favored it by 60 percent, while people who call themselves conservatives favored it by 81 percent.
So the public's feelings are pretty clear: Security first. But that does not appear to be a major concern of the Gang of Eight. When the Senate Judiciary Committee was considering amendments to the bill recently, Republican Charles Grassley offered an amendment specifying that applications for legalization be considered only after the secretary of Homeland Security certified that the government "has maintained effective control of the southern border for a period of not less than six months."
The gang closed ranks against Grassley, with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake joining unanimous Democrats to vote the amendment down. Their message was unmistakable: In this immigration proposal, legalization comes first, and enhanced security comes later. Now that the bill has cleared the Judiciary Committee, the gang will no doubt hang just as tough when the issue inevitably comes up in the full Senate.
Graham and Flake, along with fellow Gang Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain, have undoubtedly felt some heat for opposing something that 82 percent of Republicans support. But they are sticking with Sen. Charles Schumer and other Democrats, who view any change to legalization-first as a deal killer. Take it out, and the gang's carefully-crafted agreement is off.
The situation is far different in the House. Talk to the average GOP lawmaker, and he or she will say security simply must come first. On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that under the Gang of Eight proposal, a plan for enhanced security "does not have to be complete, or be even more than a fantasy." That didn't sound like a man ready to give an inch on security-first. And on Thursday, the entire House GOP leadership released a statement promising "there are numerous ways in which the House will approach [immigration reform] differently." One of those ways, undoubtedly, will involve security.
A confrontation is coming between those Republicans who will not accept a deal that is legalization-first and those Democrats who will not accept a deal that isn't. There are a lot of issues that will shape the future of immigration reform, but security first vs. legalization first is the most fundamental one.
Byron York, The Washington Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.