A Populist Republican Immigration Agenda
The GOP should champion the interests of immigrants and the working class.

Naturalization ceremony in San Bernardino, Calif., June 18, 2013.



With Congress searching for a consensus approach to immigration, Republicans have a chance to seize the initiative. They can adopt a set of policies that would be pro-immigrant, pro-working-class, pro-immigration-enforcement, and pro-citizenship. But to improve the politics of immigration, Republicans will have to abandon the self-defeating strategies adopted by the party’s various factions.

One such self-defeating strategy is the John McCain approach, as seen in the Gang of Eight immigration deal. Under that plan, amnesty would come before border security and internal enforcement. In a special absurdity, even certain illegal immigrants who had been deported would be eligible for an “amnesty” that would allow them to return to the United States. The McCain approach would create a low-skill “guest worker” program despite the high unemployment rate among the least-educated tranche of the U.S. labor force. This is also a fraction of the labor force that has been seeing its wages (and family stability and labor-force participation) decline for 30 years. Illegal immigrants receiving amnesty would face a 13-year path to citizenship.

So many problems . . . The combination of amnesty with indefinitely delayed internal enforcement would spur a new round of illegal immigration. Increasing the number of low-skill guest workers without much negotiating power would tend to (modestly) reduce the wages of those American citizens and non-citizen residents who already face high unemployment and declining earnings. The combination of a long path to citizenship, a guest-worker program, and continuing illegal immigration would increase the number of U.S. residents who are not eligible for citizenship.

Some Republicans see this as a bonus. Senator John Cornyn would expand the guest-worker program. A Republican immigration proposal in the House of Representatives includes a 15-year path to citizenship. Maximizing the number of U.S. residents who are not eligible for citizenship might benefit employers who want workers with little leverage in the labor market; it might also seem to benefit Republicans who want to please employer interests without expanding the immigrant electorate in the near-term. But a large and ever-expanding class of American residents ineligible for American citizenship is bad for American citizenship. These noncitizens whom we allow to stay in the United States will live and work alongside us. Their children who are born in our country will be American citizens and go to our schools. Whatever the short-term interests of the business lobbies and the perceived interests of Republican politicians, it is in the American interest that those we allow to live here become American citizens living in the mainstream of American life.

The alternative approach, favored by Tom Tancredo, opposes any amnesty or path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The Tancredo approach would depend on a combination of employer sanctions and local police enforcement to encourage most illegal immigrants to “self deport.” This approach is complicated by public sympathy for illegal immigrants and public support for amnesty and a path to citizenship. That support is highly conditional, though: A majority of the public favors some kind of amnesty if the government makes a prior commitment to immigration enforcement. But it remains unlikely that public opinion can be mobilized in behalf of a policy that treats self-deportation as the only strategy to deal with the existing population of illegal immigrants.