In the past few weeks, as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets and competing legislation danced around Congress, Americans were reminded of how divisive the issue of immigration can be, and how elusive a compromise remains. Although lawmakers are feverishly working to settle the issue, a resolution may have to wait for a potential presidential candidate who is currently sitting on the sidelines. His name is Rudy Giuliani.
Before discussing why Giuliani would be well suited to forge a compromise on immigration, it is worth addressing what such a compromise might look like.
The hard-line positions on both sides of the immigration debate are untenable. On the extreme side of the anti-immigration movement, there is a troubling tide of old-fashioned economic protectionism. There are those who portray immigrants as people who leech off of the system or steal jobs from Americans. But the vast majority of immigrants who sneak into the country do so to work hard and support their families. Immigrants are an asset to the American economy, rather than a liability.
While it may be true that some members of the anti-immigration crowd harbor feelings of xenophobia, it is outrageous for extremists on the pro-immigration side to cry "Racism!" whenever anybody wants to get serious about limiting immigration. Without sufficient border control, immigrants can render any Congressional legislation irrelevant by entering the country illegally and continuing to work under the radar.
It should also go without saying that protecting the borders is one of the main tenets of national security. As America leads the War on Terror, it is unfathomable that it would let millions of people flow into the country without knowing who they are. Skeptics may find it hard to imagine Al Qaeda terrorists sneaking into the United States by crossing the Mexican border, but flying planes into skyscrapers also sounded far-fetched prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.
There are plenty of opportunities to debate the specifics, but the broad outlines for an immigration compromise would be a system that makes it easier for people to immigrate into the U.S. legally, while securing the borders so that they cannot enter illegally. Our government should be eager to welcome hard working immigrants who want to contribute to the economy, but it also has a duty to keep track of who they are.
Giuliani is uniquely qualified to reconcile these two positions. As the grandson of Italian immigrants, Giuliani's success is living proof of the value of immigration. His credentials on law enforcement and national security and his no-nonsense approach to governing would be indispensable in crafting a better system of patrolling the borders. And his strongly pro-immigration record as mayor of New York City would put him in the best position of any Republican to get tough on border security without alienating Hispanic voters.
Throughout his mayoralty, Giuliani spoke movingly about the immigrant experience. For instance, in a speech given at Ellis Island on June 10, 1997, he said:
"Our country would not be the richest, most successful nation if it were not for immigrants. From the inception of this country, the very process of immigration is what has come to define us as a nation...
"Immigrants constantly infuse new life into our economy and culture. They come with the desire to succeed, they work hard and they challenge us to do better..."
Conservative critics of Giuliani may argue that he has no credibility on border enforcement because he was too lax on immigration when he was mayor of New York City. But Giuliani had different responsibilities as mayor than he would as president, and he has always recognized the need to do a better job patrolling the borders. As he remarked in the same Ellis Island speech:
"Illegal immigration is a very real problem—but it is one that lies outside of the responsibility of cities and states of this country.
"Controlling our borders is a core function of the federal government and it is a problem that requires serious attention..."
Should Giuliani decide to seek the Republican nomination, he would have to win over at least some social conservatives. Were he to suddenly become pro-life, or announce his support for a Marriage Protection Amendment, the dramatic turnabout would undercut his reputation as a leader who sticks to his guns. However, he could take a hard-line on border enforcement while remaining perfectly consistent with his prior unabashedly pro-immigration stances.
In a recent column, William Kristol argued that the GOP could not afford to become the anti-immigration party. Kristol asked, "How many Republicans will have the courage to stand up and prevent the yahoos from driving the party off a cliff?"
One comes to mind.
Philip Klein is a New York-based journalist. He can be contacted through his Website: www.philipklein.com