Legal immigration, in the opinion of Senator Spencer Abraham (Republican-Michigan), is something we shouldn’t do anything “more” about “until we have a fuller debate on the benefits of immigration.” The new chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee insists that he is “not trying to badmouth the other side, but they’ve had the chance to make their case.”

If being allowed to address an audience of hostile deaf mutes in an unventilated auditorium where the sound system has been turned down and the lights have been shut off amounts to a chance to make one’s case. Senator Abraham’s claim may have some slight basis in fact. As for a “fuller debate,” what I called in The Immigration Mystique “the unwelcome debate” has deteriorated in the last 12 months into the almost nonexistent debate. The spring of 1996 found Congress addressing the issue with some degree of forthrightness, but the legislators took care to be done with the issue between the primary season and the general election. Thereafter immigration reform—also INS illegalities, Doris Meissner’s duplicity, and the Clinton administration’s mass production of Democratic voters by a speeded-up naturalization process—was ignored resolutely by the candidates and their spokesmen. Rumor had it that Jack Kemp accepted the Number Two spot on the Republican ticket after exacting a promise from Numero Uno that immigration would not be made a campaign issue by the Republicans—something that Numero Uno had absolutely no inclination to do anyway, hi the spirit of bipartisanship (easily confused with the coming one-party system) Clinton and the Democrats played along with the full cooperation of the media, which chose to aid and abet both parties in their conspiracy of silence.

Immediately following the election the word went out on Washington’s mean streets that the new Congress, convening in January, would return to the problem of immigration. In the interim, however, consternation within the Republican Party was sparked by Loretta Sanchez’s victory over Bob Dornan and fanned to a small firestorm by immigrationists Linda Chavez and Paul Gigot, whose joyful warnings that the GOP is now perceived by Asians and Latinos as the anti-immigrant party has made it nervous as a racehorse confronted by a mouse. Senator Jon Kyi of Arizona, a restrictionist, waived his seniority to permit Senator Abraham to assume the chairmanship of the immigration committee, even though his own state is suffering an invasion of immigrants from Mexico. An immigrant backlash against the Republicans may or may not be a reality: what matters is that few, if any, American politicians require a valid excuse to shut up about immigration, except to mention it in positive terms.

So here come the positive Republican governors, led by Jim Edgar of Illinois and George Pataki of New York, demanding that Congress amend the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 by restoring benefits denied to legal immigrants by the new law. The Republicans are supported in this effort by the Democratic governors and by the National Congress of State Legislators, now that the election year Reign of Terror by the voters is past and a politician is able to speak out again for compassion and the dignity of man without fear of reprisal. Moreover, if the federal government doesn’t pick up the tab once more, the governors will be required to impose a tax hike on their nativist constituencies in order to support immigrants who were supposed to be solvent when they arrived here. You can’t find a more positive argument than that.

Gigot’s attempts at haymaking seem to have had one unintended result, however. In his January 24 column in the Wall Street Journal, he ridiculed the editors of National Review for having forged an alliance with “neo-Malthusian” restrictionists. These remarks elicited in short order a defense of the magazine by William F. Buckley, Jr., in his own column—the first he has written on the subject of immigration in 30 years. Mr. Buckley expressed impatience with “Ellis Island cultists” and “free-market purists,” derided the idea of totally open borders as “libertarian fancy . . . but not very good national policy,” and concluded that, “There is a case to be made for reducing legal immigration.” Mr. Gigot got more than he bargained for, and in attacking National Review he may have tarnished The Immigration Mystique in the eyes of conservatives.