Sorting the GOP Candidates on Immigration

Carson speaks about it in moral terms, while Trump takes the low road. Bush has the most rational plan.

BN-LD423_mortzu_M_20151106122625I was born in Canada, a country I love, but entered the United States for education and stayed for a career. I have rejoiced at the opportunities, openness and friendliness of this society, and I became an American citizen many years ago. That is why I have looked on with perplexity and some astonishment at the way candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have approached immigration.

The retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has made an unlikely vault into the front of the Republican presidential pack with a weird mix of ideas—and an apparently shaky grasp of his own biography. But the gentle political novice’s appeal is easy enough to understand: He dares to talk about morals, including in reference to immigration, in an age when that has gone out of fashion. “Is it moral for us,” he wrote in “America the Beautiful,” his 2012 book, “to take advantage of cheap labor from illegal immigrants while denying them citizenship? I’m sure you can tell from the way I phrased the question that I believe we have taken the moral low road on this issue.”

The lowest road of all in the immigration debate is Donald Trump’s plan to round up and deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Mr. Carson favors giving them a pathway to citizenship but insists that it should be a hard path and fair to the American citizenry.

“The American people should not be manipulated into believing that they are heartless simply because they want to preserve the rule of law in our nation and look after their own before they take in others,” he has also written. “We also have to consider the millions of people who have immigrated here legally as well as those who are in the queue. It is incredibly unfair to them to grant amnesty to those who have jumped ahead of them in line illegally.”

Mr. Carson is not in any competition of beastliness with Mr. Trump, nor is he peddling a soft option. He advocates a U.S. version of the Canadian guest-worker system, which works very well. To qualify as a guest worker on the Carson plan, an applicant already in the U.S. illegally would have to leave first.

It is refreshing to see his willingness, this early in the campaign, to tackle immigration. Republicans know that during the primary season trying to engage with immigration in a serious, practical way is to risk being punished by voters.

Consider that two years ago, a bipartisan group of eight senators thrashed out a comprehensive reform bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The plan was contingent on certain improvements in border-security and tracking. It offered permanent residence to undocumented immigrants after 10 years in provisional status, and a different path to citizenship for agricultural workers. The bill focused on reducing visa backlogs, a curse for American businesses, which often are forced to forgo hiring brilliant technicians trained in our universities. (On this subject, President Obama has shown a remarkable lack of energy.) It would have expanded and improved the employment-verification system, so that all companies could confirm that they are conforming to the law.

It says something about the sudden degradation of the debate on immigration over the past two years—epitomized by Mr. Trump’s surge in popularity with his “build a wall” vow—that the good senators who produced this bill, consistent with realities and with American values, are now called the “Gang of Eight.”

It is an insult typical of the approach of Sen. Ted Cruz, who led the opposition to President Obama’s well-received plan in 2014 to expand the immigration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Mr. Cruz, like Mr. Trump and some other GOP candidates, also has—incredibly—made an issue of birthright citizenship, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Carly Fiorina has wavered regarding the path to citizenship, but her crisp summary of what needs to be done, without a never-never comprehensive reform, is appealingly free of cant: Mrs. Fiorina supports the Dream Act—a proposal to grant permanent U.S. residency for the children of immigrants brought here when they were under age 16 by their parents—“because I think that you cannot punish children who came here through no will of their own as young children,” as she recently told Yahoo ’s Katie Couric.

But, she added, “I also think we have the cart backwards; when we pass something called the Dream Act before we’ve even secured the border all we’re doing is making the problem worse.” She argues for simplifying the system, which has 16 different visa programs, and says, “half the people here illegally came on a legal visa—we just never bothered to follow up.” She wants to design a “temporary worker program that works.”

Mrs. Fiorina has had the nerve also to rebuke her fellow Republicans who too readily followed the Trumpian beat. “I think these are ideas that stoke anger but don’t solve problems,” she told NBC News in August. “I think Donald Trump is stoking anger without solving problems. And I think others, now, are sadly pandering to him.”

Marco Rubio has a romantic immigrant story to tell about his parents’ arrival from Cuba and their hard work to make a new life in America. Allied to his remarkable forensic skill in debate, the senator has, I believe, a good claim on the nomination despite his lack of real governing experience—and despite his unfortunate wavering on birthright citizenship. This from someone who not so long ago was a member of the sensible “Gang of Eight.” Mr. Rubio has also been wide open to the criticism by Jeb Bush that he has been too ready to abandon many who voted to put him in the Senate.

And so we come to Jeb Bush, the former front-runner who became the invisible man. There is little doubt that on immigration he has made the most intensive study of all the candidates and come forward with the most rational and civilized program.

He is spot-on in his condemnation of Mr. Trump’s fantasy of deporting 11 million people. Then there are the small matters of civil rights and logistics. Merely in monetary terms, Mr. Trump’s deportation would cost up to $600 billion, according to American Action Forum.

Mr. Bush believes that diversity is one of America’s great strengths as a nation built by successive waves of immigrants. He has spelled out his plans in admirable detail. “We need a vigorous path to earned legal status where people are required to learn English, pay a fine and taxes, pass a criminal-background check, to work and not receive federal government benefits,” he writes on his campaign website. “This isn’t amnesty. It’s a sensible proposal that can be embraced by people across the political spectrum.” All the more pity that Mr. Bush is not doing better in the polls. The disillusion with “establishment” politicians in this country is deep and disturbing.

In the general election, if not in the Republican primaries, I hope for a revival of an American view of immigration that welcomed new arrivals, confident that they would ultimately be a boon to the nation.

An 1891 guidebook for European immigrants warned that other brochures presenting the U.S. simply as a “golden” land of plenty weren’t being frank about what would be expected of them. “Hold fast,” the guide said. “This is most necessary in America. Forget your customs, and your ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might. . . . You will experience a bad time, but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. If you are neglectful, beware the wheel of fortune turns fast. You will lose your grip and be lost. A bit of advice for you: Do not take a moment’s rest. Run.”

So they did, and so we prospered.

Mr. Zuckerman is chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report.

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