Restrictionist Revival: Congress Takes a Right Turn on Immigration Policy

Article excerpt

Two years ago, Mayor Lou Barletta of Hazelton, Pennsylvania lost his hard-fought campaign against longtime Democratic Congressman Paul Kanjorski. It was a replay of their match-up in 2006, and Barletta had every reason to be discouraged. He had been at the center of a national debate on immigration after he passed ordinances aimed at punishing employers and landlords who did business with illegal aliens. Though even today the particulars are being sorted out in court, nearly half of the illegal population of Hazleton moved out. Barletta had won a national following, but he couldn't win a seat in Congress. Pundits used his defeat to declare the immigration issue lost to conservatives.

But that moralizing didn't take into account the numbers. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Pennsylvania's 11th district. And while Obama carried that territory by 15 points, Kanjorski won by only 3. The incumbent Democrat required a Bill Clinton appearance on the eve of the election and $7 million in campaign contributions to defeat Barletta.

"After 2006, I couldn't sit on the sidelines and do nothing," says Barletta, "I had a lot of encouragement from friends and my own family, and even from Washington that if I ran again, it would be different." And it was. On his third try, Barletta won by 9 points in 2010.

His ascent to Congress comes just as Democrats are discussing another "comprehensive immigration reform" bill as part of a strategy for dividing Republicans. "This will separate the reasonable Republicans from the pack running for president," said one senior Obama aide to reporter Richard Wolfe just before the election. But the politics of immigration has moved drastically in the restrictionist direction since Bush tried and failed to pass his immigration reform. The ranks of conservatives have been redoubled in the legislature, and one-time Republican champions of amnesty have abandoned their former positions.

Conservatives who would like to see a secure border and an end to illegal immigration are supremely confident that they can stop an amnesty bill this time. "George Bush could barely split us as a Republican president," says Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), who is in line to head the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. "Enough conservative Republicans stuck together and blocked his comprehensive amnesty plan. Obama has zero-loyalty factor with House Republicans."

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, is similarly optimistic: "[Senator] Jon Kyl didn't want to do amnesty, but he is a good party man, a loyalist, and he did President Bush's bidding. But it was very destructive to him." Today the Obama White House doesn't even have a plausible path to getting any kind of amnesty bill to the floor. "I don't care what Obama tries to do to the Republican caucus," says Beck. "There is no way for him to go around these new Republican Judiciary chairmen."

Barletta is expected to reinforce King on the immigration subcommittee. "I have a lot to offer from my perspective as a mayor who experiences the drain illegal immigration has on a small city, a small budget, and the quality of life." And there are good reasons to suspect Barletta can hold his seat. He had to win Democratic votes in 2010. And he previously won his mayoralty with 90 percent of the vote in his city, even taking over the Democratic ballot line as a write-in candidate. Pennsylvania Republicans also won overwhelming victories in the statehouse and control the coming round of congressional redistricting. Barletta won't face strong headwinds anytime soon.

Not only will the new Congress include more restrictionists like Barletta, the open-borders wing of the GOP is much more abashed than it was just four years ago. The failure of comprehensive reform during the Bush administration has chastened former Republican advocates of amnesty. John McCain faced an intense primary challenge from restrictionist J. …