Amnesty Loses to the Rule of Law

chuck schumer capitol hill
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) discusses the Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget resolution during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., August 11, 2021. (Gabrielle Crockett/Reuters)

The Senate parliamentarian’s rejection of Democrats’ amnesty push is a win for republican self-government.

At a time of unprecedented breakdown and chaos at America’s southern border, Democrats were quietly hoping to include an amnesty package for some 8 million illegal immigrants in their filibuster-protected $3.5 trillion budget-reconciliation push. The move was an attempt to subvert one of the most fundamental aspects of the social contract, predicated on the dubious premise that sweeping immigration reforms were appropriate to the reconciliation’s intended fiscal purpose, carried out through a flouting of the institutional norms and decorum that Democrats have ostensibly held in such high esteem for the last four years. Thankfully, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough had the courage to stand firm against the effort, announcing in a three-page memo released to senators late Sunday evening that “provisions are not allowed in such bills if their budget effect is ‘merely incidental’ to their overall policy impact,” according to the Associated Press.

The amnesty proposal itself was one of the most radical in American history, granting green cards and a potential path to citizenship for 8 million out of the approximately 11 million illegal residents in the United States — including those with criminal records — and significantly expanding legal immigration without even a symbolic mention of border security, to boot. Were it not for MacDonough, all of that could well have passed under the radar without hearings, floor debates, or in-committee votes.

Despite Representative Ilhan Omar’s argument on Twitter that the parliamentarian’s ruling was “optional” and that Chuck Schumer and the White House “can and should ignore it,” the Democrats’ amnesty ambitions are likely dead, at least for now. That’s worth celebrating for a number of reasons. Not only is it a check on the Left’s abuses of Senate procedure but it’s a rebuke of what would almost certainly exacerbate the surge of migrants flooding over the southern border, much of which is driven by the widespread perception that America’s commitment to border security has weakened under the Biden administration.

More to the point, the failure of the Democrats’ amnesty package is a win for the rule of law. There are few things more foundational to republican self-government than the integrity of the polity itself. It is impossible to sustain a nation with no clear, widely understood definition of what that nation is; political liberty cannot last for long in the face of the breakdown of civic friendship, which proceeds from uncontrolled immigration’s degradation of the very idea of citizenship itself. Our collective loyalties, shared loves, and mutual commitments come by virtue of our understanding that we belong to the same home. But that sense of belonging is impossible unless we are able to know where our home begins and ends.

Amnesty undermines all of that. Our entire immigration system, which runs on a laughably porous set of enforcement mechanisms punctuated by spasmodic efforts at citizenship for millions of illegal residents, is an affront to the principle of national sovereignty from start to finish. But the periodic (and often bipartisan) mass-amnesty pushes are the most blatant of all of these offenses, enshrining and widening the disconnect between the American people and their ostensible representatives in the ruling elite. An immigration regime that relies on capriciously awarding citizenship for the feat of illegally entering and residing in our country is an inversion of justice, rewarding lawlessness and punishing merit. Even more fundamentally, it is a radical rejection of democratic self-determination, robbing the nation’s citizens of the sacrosanct right to determine who joins their political community.

At root, governing a nation this way enshrines the idea that our laws are optional. This is an effect of mass immigration that is not easily discerned in GDP, wage growth, opinion polls, and other standard numerical measurements of social prosperity but is profoundly corruptive of the political and moral character of a nation all the same. The “mobocratic spirit” that a young Abraham Lincoln spoke of in his Lyceum Address — in which “the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice” — contributes to the breakdown of what the future president described as “the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours . . . the attachment of the People.” Lincoln recognized that Americans are bound together by a shared reverence for our political inheritance, embodied by the Constitution and the laws of the land. But “if the laws be continually despised and disregarded,” he warned, “the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.”

Lincoln understood that the institutionalization of lawlessness and disrespect for the Constitution corrodes the soul of a people. Outside of the wonkier — though still crucially important — questions surrounding economics, cultural assimilation, and any other aspect of the immigration debate, this is the first-order objection to mass amnesty: It is a repudiation of the principle that a people should be sovereign in their own country, replacing a nation of laws with an arbitrary regime whose fidelity to the Constitution fluctuates at the momentary whims of those in power.

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