House Republicans and Immigration: The GOP choice: A party of opportunity or closed borders?

By WSJ, Editorial

Today the 234 House Republicans will meet behind closed doors in a therapy session that could decide the fate of immigration reform. This will be raucous and maybe enlightening. The GOP is splintered and confused on immigration, and this has left the party with no coherent or winning message. Too often Americans hear the shrillest anti-immigration Republicans whose only argument is “secure the border,” as if that is a sensible policy for the 21st century.

House Speaker John Boehner‘s job is to make sure those voices don’t carry the day. He and his colleagues face a fundamental choice: kill immigration reform, or try to pass constructive and pro-growth measures that have broad public and business support, including from millions of conservatives.

The first option would be a policy blunder and perhaps a political disaster. The Republican-led House has tried to sell itself as a party of solutions. To fail to fix any part of an immigration system that everyone agrees is contrary to U.S. economic interests, and after the Senate has passed a bipartisan reform, would play into Democratic charges that House Republicans are mere obstructionists.

Nearly as unproductive would be merely to pass another border-security bill as the GOP did in 2006. That would allow the legal immigration system to grow more unworkable by the day. Surely there is a Republican agenda beyond militarizing the border and turning ICE into the Republican version of OSHA and EPA that criminalizes employers who create jobs.

The good news is that there is. Even if the House doesn’t want to take up the entire bill that recently passed the Senate, it can still consider and pass the parts that are pro-growth and that most Republicans support.

These include a provision to allow foreign graduates of U.S. schools with science, math and technology degrees to stay in America if they have a job offer. Even Mitt Romney supported this one. Another provision would double the number of H-1B visas for skilled immigrants, while a third would allow visas to those who will start businesses and invest in America. These reforms are vital to U.S. economic leadership, and a party that opposes them looks blinkered and backward.

Republicans should also vote to codify the Dream Act, which would allow some two million immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children to become legal residents and eventually citizens. President Obama has issued an executive order toward this goal, but Republicans can make it permanent and get some credit for a policy that is the essence of compassionate conservatism.

If Republicans insist on passing more border-security measures, then House fiscal hawks should at least cut out the $30 billion of waste in the Senate bill. This could be strategically paired with guest-worker programs for agriculture and other workers, as well as speeding up green cards for those who have been waiting lawfully in line for years to become Americans.

History proves without question that the best way to reduce illegal immigration is by opening more paths for legal immigrants to meet U.S. labor demand. Border security alone won’t work. Almost all Republicans in the House insist they support legal immigration. It’s time to prove that with some votes.

House GOP leaders say they aren’t sure they have the votes to pass these measures. They thus may need Democratic votes, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi may command her troops to vote no on anything but the Senate bill. Let them. If Silicon Valley Democrats want to vote against high-tech visas, that’s their choice. If the Hispanic caucus wants to vote down the Dream Act and more farm workers, then so be it. Democrats can then take responsibility if these measures fail.

Republicans should also be willing to debate and vote on the issue of legalizing 11 million illegal immigrants. We support this path to citizenship, and many House Republicans also claim to support it eventually, someday, just not as in the Senate bill. Mr. Boehner should challenge his Members to come up with the terms they would support, because the alternative is “self-deportation” that isn’t going to happen.

The dumbest strategy is to follow the Steve King anti-immigration caucus and simply let the Senate bill die while further militarizing the border. This may please the loudest voices on talk radio, but it ignores the millions of evangelical Christians, Catholic conservatives, business owners and free-marketers who support reform. The GOP can support a true conservative opportunity society or become a party of closed minds and borders.

A version of this article appeared The Wall Street Journal. 

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