WASHINGTON – As a
sweeping immigration reform bill stalled Thursday night,
Sen. Trent Lott stood just outside the Senate chamber
blaming “this mess” on the clear failure of every
president going back to Ronald Reagan to secure the
The result, Lott said, is an angry and cynical public
unwilling to believe President Bush or members of Congress
when they promise today to cut illegal immigration in
exchange for legalizing millions of illegal immigrants.
“The resistance, the angst of the people, is
legitimate,” said Lott, R-Miss.
Senators from Oregon to Georgia echoed Lott's rueful
apprehension that promises to deal with illegal
immigration have slammed into a wall of public cynicism,
especially among conservatives in both red and blue
There is widespread suspicion, lawmakers acknowledge,
that Congress and the White House will fail again to fix a
problem the federal government first said it would solve
back in 1986 with a landmark law that combined amnesty
with a border buildup and crackdown on employers who hired
“They're frustrated, angry and cynical,” Arizona
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl said yesterday of many of the
voters in his state. “The question they always ask is,
'Why should we believe you're going to enforce a new law
if you're not going to enforce the existing law?' ”
Some 2.7 million illegal immigrants received amnesty
under the 1986 law, but the promised crackdowns at the
border and in the workplace fizzled. After a brief lull,
the illegal flow across the border resumed. It has been
accelerating ever since, with the illegal-immigrant
population currently estimated at 12 million – twice the
estimated total in 1986.
“Passions run very strong on this,” said Sen. Ron
Wyden, D-Ore., reporting on town meetings he had back home
over the Memorial Day recess.
“The Congress and the president don't have
credibility,” added Sen. Johnny Isakson. The Georgia
Republican invented the legislation's “triggers,” which
were an attempt to win public confidence in the
government's promise to stem illegal immigration after so
many similar promises have gone unfulfilled in the past.
The triggers require more Border Patrol agents, vehicle
barriers and high-tech surveillance equipment to be in
place along the border before the permanent legalization
program kicks in with the distribution of green cards.
However, illegal immigrants would be eligible immediately
for temporary visas allowing them to stay in the country
and work in the meantime.
Proponents of the bill are aggressively selling the
triggers as a fail-safe.
Bush declared recently that the bill's enforcement
provisions would “solve this problem once and for all.”
Other proponents, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,
have made similar promises.
But those reassuring words have not been enough to
inspire confidence among critics of the bill, in part
because they come after decades of similar failed
The federal government has spent tens of billions of
dollars on border enforcement during the past 25 years.
There have been repeated crackdowns, with ever more
resources being thrown into the battle to control the
border, including large annual increases in the size of
the Border Patrol. Bush said the government spent $10
billion on border enforcement last year alone.
Nonetheless, the nation's illegal-immigrant population
is increasing at an annual rate of half a million.