Conservatives and Immigration

By Jonathan S. Tobin

The early indications are that President Obama may not seek to torpedo the bipartisan immigration reform proposal put forward yesterday by six U.S. senators. Having wisely put their plan before the public before the president could grandstand on the issue and continue to use it as a partisan cudgel to attack Republicans, the group led by Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, John McCain and Marco Rubio made it difficult for the president to avoid endorsing their efforts even if he can be counted on to push for a more liberal approach than GOP members of the reform coalition will accept. But if Obama keeps his promise to Schumer and Durbin and doesn’t try to torpedo their scheme in the hope of making political hay out of a dispute with the GOP over its terms, the real drama will be on the right as conservatives begin their own debate on the issue.

Pushback against the proposal from the right wasn’t long in coming. Rush Limbaugh denounced it on the radio, as did many others who helped sink previous reform plans by branding them as “amnesty.” Even more troubling was the negative reaction on Fox News from commentators Jonah Goldberg and Charles Krauthammer, who both poured cold water on the bipartisan scheme by claiming that its promise of border control and enforcement of the laws was not credible and that, as had been the case after Ronald Reagan’s try at dealing with the problem, illegal immigration would continue unabated. Others took on the rationale that Republicans should back the bill in order to get more Hispanic votes. Heather Mac Donald wrote in National Review to rightly point out (as Seth did last year) that many Hispanics like liberal policies and are unlikely to switch parties even if the GOP stopped positioning itself as the anti-immigrant party.

These are reasonable arguments but they are not persuasive. Republicans ought to get behind the immigration compromise not because it will help them politically but because opposition to it is bad public policy.

A considerable portion of the conservative movement has always supported a more rational policy on immigration that recognized the need to do something to bring millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows. But most on the right have treated this issue as one in which the rule of law was at stake and saw any proposal that called for giving legal status to the more than 11 million illegals already here as an amnesty bill. Opposition to rewarding law-breakers is rational and understandable. But since, as Rush noted yesterday, nobody on the right is seriously talking about trying to deport all of those people (something that would, in any case, be virtually impossible anyway), it is hard to understand how a refusal to create a process by which the illegals could become documented is a defense of the rule of law. As Marco Rubio has argued, what we have now is de facto amnesty.

Charles Krauthammer’s objections are also not to be dismissed. After decades of neglect, there is good reason to be skeptical of any federal commitment to secure the border. But the strength of the bipartisan proposal is that this is probably our best chance to force Washington to deal with the issue that we are ever likely to get. Since the implementation of the plans for giving legal status to the illegals is dependent on concrete steps toward making it far more difficult to cross the border with impunity, the administration and its liberal supporters in Congress have an incentive to acquiesce to more security and to see that the law is enforced. Those who rightly complain about the porous nature of the border need to understand that absent a comprehensive immigration deal there isn’t likely to be any funding or backing either now or in the future for the kind of measures that are needed to tighten up the border.

That said, the idea that Republicans are trolling for Hispanic votes on this issue is troubling. Treating the issue as if it were a simple transaction in which the GOP would flip on immigration in order to purchase Hispanic votes is misleading and inaccurate.

No matter what happens in this debate, many Hispanic voters will not forget the inflammatory rhetoric about illegal immigrants used by Republican candidates like Mitt Romney. Were Republicans to approach this matter in such a cynical manner it would do them little good politically. Nor will Republicans ever be able to outbid the Democrats when it comes to offering more government benefits and entitlements.

The best Republicans can hope for here is to take the issue off the table and therefore deny Democrats the ability to falsely claim that they are the defenders of the immigrants. Dropping their opposition to reform won’t put the GOP on an even playing field with Democrats for Hispanics, but it will give them a chance to begin making inroads. Republicans need to recognize that pushing illegals to get on the citizenship track, pay taxes and get ahead like all other previous immigrant groups is good for America and the GOP. If they do, they will prosper and become, like their predecessors from Ireland, Germany and a hundred other places, the sort of people who will be inclined to embrace the conservative doctrine of free markets and limited government.

Leaving the Hispanic vote aside, the rationale for Republican support for immigration reform is actually about a core principle of conservatism: a recognition that government can’t try to use legislation to override basic economics. So long as there are jobs in the United States that Americans are not filling and there is a large population of unemployed workers just outside our border, those people will be finding a way to get to those jobs no matter what the laws say. It is far better to accept this and accommodate the laws to economic reality than to attempt the opposite.

Moreover, despite the issues in some border states where a large population of illegals has created serious problems, we also need to understand that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are here to work, not to try to collect welfare benefits. These are the sorts of people America has always needed and welcomed, and the idea that they are a threat to our way of life is grounded in inaccurate ideas about their role in our society and the economy. Worries about maintaining a large unassimilated population are best addressed through reform measures that encourage the learning of English in order to get on a path to citizenship, not empty talk about treating the immigrants as lawbreakers.

Those who refuse to contemplate any policy on illegal immigration other than punishment and stricter border security are living in a fantasy world. It is long past time for Republicans to stop trying to pretend that there is any solution to deal with millions of illegals other than to accept them. Any deal that strengthens border security and penalizes the illegals is the best conservatives will ever get. The GOP should embrace it and then move on to other, more important fights.

This article originally appeared on  Commentary Magazine

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