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.



The Republican National Committee’s post-2012 autopsy called for comprehensive immigration reform as a necessary step to increase support for Republicans within the growing Hispanic electorate. The McCain-Cornyn and Tancredo approaches fail by that standard. The Tancredo approach obviously fails, as it makes no room for illegal immigrants who have long resided in the U.S. and put down roots here. The McCain-Cornyn approach fails in that it offers amnesty without integration, treating illegal immigrants and guest workers as units of labor. They can live and work here, but not vote (or they will be able to vote much later on). The McCain-Cornyn approach would also drive down (and seek to keep down) the wages of the lowest-earning American residents and citizens. Underneath all the rhetoric about “welcoming,” the McCain-Cornyn approach to guest workers and illegal immigrants is: “We want you to stay and work here for as little as possible and we want you to vote either much later or never.” That isn’t welcoming.

The Republicans have an opportunity to adopt a better strategy. First, Republicans should support a limited amnesty (open only to longtime U.S. residents) upon the implementation of stronger border security and (especially) internal enforcement through E-Verify. As E-Verify comes online for all workers and the border tightens, the government could begin processing amnesty applications. The public supports amnesty, but on the condition that the government controls immigration flows. The McCain-Cornyn approach is a fraud when it comes to enforcement. The Tancredo approach forecloses any hope of amnesty. An enforcement mandate followed by a limited amnesty better aligns with the public’s sense of justice in this case.

Second, Republicans should support a Canadian-style system for future immigrants, which rewards high-skilled workers and those proficient in English. Low-skill immigration should be restricted for the sake of current low-skill Americans and residents (including those low-skill workers who will be getting amnesty). We should not be expanding our labor markets in exactly those sectors where unemployment is highest.

Americans across the partisan and ideological spectrum prefer going to a system based on skills and language proficiency. It should not be too hard for Republicans to adopt a strategy that is both good policy and good politics. The Conservative party of Canada has shown that a center-right party can favor skills- and language-proficiency-based immigration reform while increasing its share of the vote among immigrant and second-generation voters.

Third, Republicans should be pro-immigrant in the sense of supporting the immigrants who are already here. Republicans can’t be authentically pro-immigrant if they are trying to maximize the time before immigrants become U.S. citizens. If Republicans really want to seem welcoming, they have to be welcoming. The families of immigrants — including those who would get amnesty — should be integrated as full members of the American polity rather than kept as resented guests or mere units of labor.

Finally, it is not enough for Republicans to champion the interests of the working class only when it comes to immigration policy. If they want to make inroads among recent immigrants and secure strong turnout from working-class whites, they need an economic agenda that would benefit the middle and lower-middle classes. A tax policy that increases the take-home pay of middle-class working parents would be welcoming to those groups. A market-oriented health-care reform that protected working families from catastrophic health-care costs would be welcoming to them.

The Republican party is missing an opportunity to adopt a set of policies that are already popular, that would improve immigration policy and national cohesion, and that would benefit those working families that are in greatest economic distress.

Republicans just need to recognize that there is no contradiction between being for immigration enforcement and supporting a limited amnesty, and that there is no conflict between being pro-immigrant and pro-working-class and shifting to a skills- and language-proficiency-based immigration system.

— Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.