WASHINGTON -- Oddly enough, of all the myriad issues the Obama administration has tirelessly -- and sometimes tiresomely -- addressed, it has been utterly silent over the highly emotional one of immigration.
Not a mention of the fact that, despite some runaway returnees to Mexico from this bad economy, there remain millions of illegals living off-the-grid lives in America. Over the years, generally 80 percent of Americans polled have said they want immigration reform, yet not a word from the president on that issue. Even more silence from Congress.
So I went recently to the 30th annual meeting of the major immigration control group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), to see what was the thinking in this representative group, and I found two things: (1) They are more convinced than ever that they represent the feelings of the masses of the American people for immigration control and against illegal immigration. But (2) they are deeply afraid that the White House, along with Congress, is at any time ready to push through another amnesty for the 13 to 20 million illegals now already in the country.
As the prominent historian Otis Graham Jr., professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, said at FAIR's 30th anniversary dinner, FAIR had won the polls "because we were able to fire the only weapon we really had -- the American people -- whose polls have been unwavering over the years." At another point, he pointed out that FAIR-oriented grassroots groups were growing around the country, 50 in California alone, and that large new groups such as Numbers U.S.A. were prominent in Washington.
But then the old question of amnesty came up. Over the years, there had been eight amnesties granted to illegal aliens already, he said -- and it was clear the group feared another one was on the way.
Criticizing this administration, FAIR President Dan Stein said: "We face another missed opportunity this year, when the country could be getting control of its borders and making it acceptable. We have 1.2 million illegals coming a year, even though the traditional attractions that have driven immigration, like the economy, are no longer real.
"Yet, since FAIR was founded 30 years ago, there has been a real change in the tone and nature of the debate. There was a real effort in 1986 to trade off amnesty for enacting employer sanctions -- people of good faith thought the trade-off could be enforced. Today the fight appears to be only naked power-grabbing in which the factionalism of party politics has destroyed what should be a civil debate."
That year, 1986, stands more and more as "the" year that we should study as the nation faces the potential disaster of another amnesty that, as it surely would be structured, would only take in millions more illegals without finally halting the relentless flow of human beings at the border, which is now even more devilishly complicated by the vicious drug-trafficking violence there.
By that year, the two sides had come to a tacit agreement. After the results of two high-level commissions, one headed by Barbara Jordan and one by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh -- both of them strongly recommending strong border and immigration control as well as a national ID card -- the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was agreed upon. But legalization was to be a one-time thing! After that, only legal immigration.
But even as one side of the bargain was kept and no fewer than 3 million illegals were simply handed American citizenship, while 16,000 to 20,000 applicants waited in the legal lines, the other side's was not. After 1986, the illegals kept coming and coming until they may well top off at 20 million today. And the American population will probably reach an unfathomable -- and wholly unsustainable -- 1 billion by the turn of the next century, almost all from the growth of illegals, and still there is no control.
When FAIR was founded in 1979, it was founded by a handful of professional people, such as Otis Graham and Dr. John Tanton, and it was housed in a basement office in Washington. It is proud of the fact that it has never brought race or ethnicity into the fight: It is only for legal immigration that will answer America's needs and not the needs of other countries who refuse to give their people a decent life.
Today, it is a highly respected group, and its leaders see before them another moment -- "another 1986." But they also see the difficulties in a new administration that, so far as anyone can see, is simply not interested in immigration reform, even though it has long been one of the No. 1 issues on the minds of the majority of Americans and has come up recently only with regard to government-sponsored health care.
Allow me, then, to present a central idea for the administration and for Congress at this difficult time for America. The real problem is not amnesty per se. The real problem is the memory of 1986. It is the memory of a betrayal of amnesty, which is very well-known, and the quite realistic fear that it can and will happen again.
The idea: Do it honestly and effectively this time. Follow it up with real border and immigration control, and you might find that the American people could be with you and that a new era could open for America. The only other answer is an America out-of-control or, perhaps better said, in other countries' control.