She is already implying that Republicans are anti-Hispanic. GOP candidates would be wise not to take the bait.
Hillary Clinton has spent her nascent campaign staking out positions to the left of where President Clinton stood on free trade, crime prevention and same-sex marriage. As of last week, we can add immigration reform to the list.
Bill Clinton, you might recall, was a vocal proponent of border enforcement. “We must say ‘no’ to illegal immigration so we can continue to say ‘yes’ to legal immigration,” he remarked in July 1993 before asking Congress for an additional $172 million to launch Operation Hold the Line. Mr. Clinton said his multiyear plan would “protect our borders, remove criminal aliens, reduce work incentives for illegal immigration [and] stop asylum abuse.” Within a year, the administration had erected miles of fencing and increased border patrols by 40% along the most popular corridors in California, Texas and Arizona.
There was no emphasis on border enforcement when the former first lady sat down with illegal immigrants in Nevada last week. Mrs. Clinton said she would give comprehensive immigration reform a try if elected, but don’t expect her to try very hard. She was more interested in emphasizing her admiration for President Obama’s executive action approach. “If Congress refuses to act,” she said, “as president I will do everything possible under the law to go even further” than Mr. Obama, who bypassed the legislative branch last year and unilaterally shielded millions of illegal aliens from deportation.
Mrs. Clinton claims to want to “work across party lines” on immigration, which is how her husband operated. But lawmakers have little incentive to deal with a president who announces publicly before negotiations even begin that Congress’s input will have no impact on the outcome, which is how Mr. Obama has operated. She is promising to humor Republicans, not bargain in good faith. And when she is not humoring them, she will be painting them as anti-Hispanic. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’” said Mrs. Clinton, describing Republican presidential candidates who may be open to allowing some illegal immigrants to live and work here without being eligible for citizenship, “that’s code for ‘second-class’ status.”
Of course, second-class status is exactly what Mr. Obama has offered undocumented immigrants through his executive action, which is legally suspect, temporary and easily reversible by the next president. The GOP candidates have an opportunity to respond to Mrs. Clinton’s pandering with a more permanent bipartisan solution to the problem, but so far most of them don’t see much urgency.
Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster and strategist, says merely attacking illegal immigration—which is viewed by many Hispanics as an attack on their entire community—isn’t enough for a candidate, and that the GOP’s immigration-reform complacency could be costly in 2016 and beyond.
“The demographics in our country are changing so rapidly—with whites declining and nonwhites increasing about three percentage points each presidential election—that it becomes exceedingly difficult to win a majority of the popular vote just by increasing the share of the white vote going to the Republican candidate,” Mr. Ayers told Forbes last month. Trying to gain a larger share of a shrinking proportion of the electorate is a losing strategy, he added. “It makes far more sense—in 2016 and certainly for elections after that—for Republicans to focus on dramatically increasing their share of the nonwhite vote, especially among Hispanics who are the fastest-growing minority group.”
Among the Republican front-runners, Marco Rubio has been the most outspoken and specific. Rather than passing one large bill dealing with border security, worker visas and the legal status of people already here, Mr. Rubio favors passing smaller chunks of legislation sequentially. This approach both bows to reality—larger bills, including one formerly backed by Mr. Rubio, have repeatedly stalled—and polls well with Republican primary voters in early states. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul seem open to a similar strategy but have offered fewer details. Too many of the other Republicans, however, including the otherwise impressive Scott Walker, seem to think that “No Amnesty!” will suffice as an immigration platform.
Hillary Clinton needs to distance herself from her husband’s handling of illegal immigration two decades ago in order to accommodate a Democratic Party that has since moved much further to the left. But what the GOP ought to have learned from Bill Clinton’s experience is that focusing on border enforcement to the exclusion of economic factors that affect illegal immigration has its limits.
Operation Hold the Line and similar efforts like Operation Blockade and Operation Gatekeeper initially were successful. Illicit border crossings fell in areas where physical barriers were erected and patrols were added. But after a spell, people from south of the border found new ways to enter undetected, often across less-forgiving terrain. The more difficult journey allowed human smugglers to increase their fees. The cost and difficulty of crossing the better-fortified border gave illegals an incentive to remain in the U.S. after the harvest instead of returning home as they had in years past. Between 1990 and 2000, the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. grew by 5.5 million.
Illegal immigration is primarily a function of too many foreign nationals chasing too few work permits. Executive amnesties won’t solve that problem, and neither will militarizing the Rio Grande.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed”(Encounter Books, 2014).