The Immigration Reform Collapse: A bipartisan failure that will hurt the economy—and especially the GOP

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WSJ, Editorial

Immigration reform has finally collapsed in Congress for this year, and President Obama and House Republicans are both responsible. The larger loss is for America’s economy and dynamism, but as a political matter Republicans are likely to pay the steeper price.

BN-DM923_1break_G_20140701183119On Monday Mr. Obama chastised Republicans for the failure, but it took two not to tango. The President now says he’ll act unilaterally, but his threat all along that he would do so is one reason so many Republicans concluded that they couldn’t trust him to honestly implement any reform. One price of Mr. Obama’s legal abuses is that few in Congress think he will faithfully execute any law as written.

The President is also responsible for the current spectacle of federal incompetence at the border with Mexico. The worst Republican restrictionists couldn’t have come up with a better plan to kill reform than the sight of thousands of children flooding over the border into camps that Homeland Security  can’t manage. Many of the children are fleeing poverty and mayhem in Central America, but many have been sent by parents who heard rumors that once they get here Mr. Obama will let them stay.

Immigration reform requires some confidence that the federal government can police the border, implement E-Verify for new business hires, and manage revamped guest-worker programs. The televised sight of chaos on the border has been a godsend to GOP nativists.

Many Democrats also didn’t really want reform. They’d rather retain the issue as a political bludgeon to further portray Republicans as anti-Hispanic and anti-Asian. They figure this will drive Democratic turnout in a few key Senate races in November, and all but guarantee a Democratic presidential victory in 2016. They’re delighted to change the campaign subject from the VA, ObamaCare, the IRS and the summer of jihad to the GOP’s anti-immigration wing.

Yet none of that absolves the House GOP from failing to even hold a reform vote this year. Immigration and trade are the two pro-growth issues on which a bipartisan compromise should be possible, and the Senate proved it by passing its bill last year. A few Republicans were willing to stand up to the talk-radio demagogues, notably Marco Rubio in the Senate and Paul Ryan and Mario Díaz-Balart in the House.

But a majority of GOP Members wanted an immigration reform to pass as long as they didn’t have to vote for it. Before Majority Leader Eric Cantor‘s primary loss in Virginia last month, the House leadership’s private whip count was 144 GOP votes in favor of passing a bill this year. Afterwards it was half that.

The fallout from failure now will be more partisan blame-shifting and suspicion. The President will try to please his base, and bait the GOP’s restrictionist wing, by easing deportations by executive order as the election nears. Many Republicans will take the bait and overreact, increasing the perception of the GOP as hostile to minorities.

It’s possible that Republicans could revisit the issue next year if they get a majority in the Senate, and that will be one test of sincerity for such GOP counselors as Bill Kristol. They claim to favor reform—just not this year. But immigration opponents always find a new excuse for doing nothing, and some conservative fantasists claim that the GOP can be a majority party merely by squeezing out an ever-larger share of the declining white share of the electorate. That is a recipe for President Clinton.

And speaking of Hillary, she will claim she wants reform while doing everything in her power behind the scenes to block it until 2017. Our guess is that Mr. Obama will also be less receptive to reform in 2015 because his main goal in his last two years will be electing a Democratic successor to cement a legacy as a politically realigning President.

Meanwhile, the American economy will be the biggest loser. Contrary to Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and other Republicans who’ve adopted AFL-CIO economics, immigrants do not steal American jobs. The U.S. has a labor shortage in the industries that immigrants are most likely to fill.

At the low-wage end of the economy, jobs go begging in agriculture, hospitality and in some places construction. At the high end, the U.S. needs more engineers, software designers, biologists and so much more. America’s loss of human capital will become the rest of the world’s gain, as potential immigrants return to China and India or settle in Canada or Australia. An America growing at a dispiriting 2% for five years amid declining real incomes needs better from its political class.

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