Indiana Congressman Mike Pence has proposed what he calls a "middle ground" in the debate over immigration reform. For his efforts Pence is now the subject of harsh criticism from both sides of the debate. But it is the criticism from the anti-immigration hard-liners on the right that threatens Pence's standing as a hero to conservatives.
The Senate, fresh off passing the McCain-Kennedy amnesty plan, appears adamant that its position on a guest worker program containing some sort of amnesty must survive. Meanwhile, the hard-core crowd in the House led by Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo is providing a much more vigorous critique of the Pence plan, concluding that it is weak on border security and tantamount to amnesty, even though the Pence plan has won support from conservatives including Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich.
Indeed, Tancredo says, the Pence plan "gives the administration exactly what it wants: unlimited foreign workers first, enforcement later or never. Pence's plan is the '86 amnesty with a trip home tacked on." MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan this week joined the fray with a column attacking Pence as a traitor to the conservative cause because of his "stealth amnesty" plan. Buchanan says one of the crucial steps ignored by Pence is to "[b]uild a fence along the 2,000-mile border to stop the flood."
Also dealing a blow to the public relations effort for the Pence plan was Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist.
On a weekend call-in talk show, which featured Pence as a guest, Gilchrist phoned in with kind words for Pence's plan and thanked him for engaging in the debate with new ideas. Pence misread Gilchrist's comments as support for his plan and announced Monday at The Heritage Foundation that the Minuteman leader was in favor.
But Gilchrist denies that, telling World Net Daily, "I congratulated Congressman Pence on putting forth alternatives, but that does not mean I think the alternatives Congressman Pence proposed are the solution. Quite frankly, I don't." Gilchrist concludes, the "only solution that has any chance of work is for us to close the borders first, before we start talking about any kind of a guest worker program."
What appears to be missing from the criticism of the Pence plan is an acknowledgement that it does put border security first.
A key provision of the Pence plan puts a two-year wait on implementing a guest worker program while the border is being secured, fence and all. After that waiting period the Department of Homeland Security would be required to certify the security of the border. Essentially, this provision is identical to Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia's amendment that failed in the Senate. That amendment was lauded by conservatives of all stripes and its defeat signaled the end of any conservative support for the Senate bill.
In an interview with Lou Dobbs on CNN, Pence responded to critics who claim his plan is weak on border security. "We do everything that the House legislation adopted last December does to secure the border," Pence said. "My proposal is, Lou, that for the first two years after enactment, all we do is secure the border, and build the fence and deploy the UAV and build the additional capacity and have additional border patrols. A nation without borders is not a nation. That has to come first."
Pence also rejects accusations that his plan amounts to amnesty. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Pence wrote, "my bill does not include a so-called path to citizenship, i.e., an amnesty, for the some 12 million illegal aliens in this country. Instead, it insists that they leave and come back legally if they have a job opportunity in the U.S."
Still, Pence's detractors aren't convinced.
They're so adamant about the perceived wrong-headedness of his plan that they appear willing to dismiss the young conservative as a has-been. Indeed, rather than disagreement followed by dialogue, some appear ready to banish the Republican Study Committee's Chairman to the hinterlands of the conservative movement. In the above mentioned column Buchanan insists that the adoption of the Pence plan will mark "the end of Mike Pence as a rising star of the GOP."
That would be a shame.
The idea that some so-called conservatives would abandon an up-and-coming Reaganite because they disagree with his good-faith attempt to find a workable immigration solution is a measure of the temperature at which this debate is being conducted.
Pence has demonstrated his commitment to the conservative cause time and time again. Without his leadership, it is likely that the RSC's numerous victories in this Congress would not have happened. And that is no small thing.
Increasingly in this Republican Congress it has been Pence and his small band of conservatives that have been the only ones willing to stand up for principle. But that point appears to be lost on many hard-liners who are dead set on a "my way or the highway" approach to immigration.
Tim Chapman is the Director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and a contributor to Townhall.com's Capitol Report.
First appeared in TownHall.com