The Immigration Issue Republicans Must Address

The debate over immigration reform has spawned battles both between the political parties and within them. Now that the so-called Gang of Eight’s legislation has reached the Senate floor, the arguments — in the form of potential amendments — will grow both in number and intensity.

These debates are a good thing. Smart immigration reform will increase economic growth, job creation and tax revenue. It will create opportunity and foster upward mobility. It will also reinforce the cultural truism that the U.S. has been, and always will be, a nation of immigrants. We should make it easier for highly skilled workers to come to the U.S., do away with arbitrary country limits on visas and secure our borders.

All these goals are important and should be part of a final immigration-reform bill. Most important, however, is to come up with a policy that resolutely deals with the status of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

There may never be a better time to address this contentious issue. The unlikely coalition created by unions such as the Service Employees International Union; high-tech companies such as Facebook Inc.; and conservative leaders such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, makes comprehensive immigration reform a possibility. Republicans in particular should be unwilling to vote for a bill that fails to address the legal status of the otherwise law-abiding immigrants in the country illegally.

Campaign Experience

My view is partly based on my experience in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. During the campaign, Governor Romney proposed a thoughtful, thorough and largely bipartisan set of reforms, such as improving the temporary-worker visa program, bolstering border security, making it easier for immediate family members to reunite, and “stapling” a green card to the diploma of foreign students in the U.S. who earn advanced degrees in math, science or engineering.

The one topic we didn’t directly address, however, was the question of how to deal with the immigrants who were already in the U.S. illegally. Romney did propose a pathway to citizenship for those who were otherwise law-abiding, had come to the U.S. as children and had later served honorably in the military.

Because we didn’t directly answer this question, we gave the campaign of President Barack Obama and its allies the opportunity to score political points off Romney’s remark that these people should simply “self-deport.” (That was another — perhaps less politically correct — way of saying the federal government should enforce existing immigration and employment laws to discourage illegal immigration and channel people into the legal-immigration system.) Romney was thus unjustly portrayed as lacking solutions to address a broken immigration system.

Similarly, if Republicans are unable to come to a general agreement about how the millions of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who are already in the country can eventually legalize their presence here, they will be portrayed as obstructionist, out-of-touch and, worst of all, bigoted defenders of the status quo.

Unfair? Absolutely. But utterly predictable given today’s political climate. As much as Republicans want reform of the visa system and border security, none of our efforts in these areas will matter politically unless we also help to solve the most vexing policy problem in the immigration debate.

What exactly that solution is will be the source of much discussion over the coming weeks. I believe a few principles should guide policy makers, and Republicans in particular, as the debate continues.

Guiding Principles

First, it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect that all — or even a substantial portion — of the 11 million immigrants already in America illegally will be deported. Thus, some pathway to citizenship will probably be part of the solution.

Next, any such pathway must take into account that there are more than 4 million people waiting in line to obtain green cards. Illegal immigrants shouldn’t be given advantages over people who are waiting to legally immigrate. Practically, this means the creation of a lengthy pathway to citizenship for them, combined with reforms to clear the backlog of those waiting to come to the U.S.

Third, citizenship is a privilege and must therefore be earned. Any pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally should include real penalties and require high standards of both conduct and productivity.

Finally, any solution should take special care not to create incentives for further illegal immigration. This means allowing only those who have already come to the U.S. — and have been here for some extended period of time — to be eligible for earned citizenship.

I’m encouraged that the Senate bill largely complies with these principles. It’s imperative that Republicans recognize the dynamics at play in the current discussion and not settle for legislation that fails to address the status of otherwise law-abiding immigrants who are here illegally.

This process certainly won’t be easy, and if the last few weeks are any indication, it won’t be quick. But this is one of those rare moments when good policy and good politics actually meet. America, and the Republican Party, should seize it.

Lanhee J. Chen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who also teaches public policy at Stanford University, was the policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was the policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. The opinions expressed are his own.) To contact the writer of this article: Lanhee Chen at or @lanheechen on Twitter

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