Declining wages, perpetually high unemployment, sluggish economic growth — all these and more hang over the United States like a cloud. This economic decline has potent implications for the Republican party. Exit polling from 2012 suggests that GOP struggles with the worried working class have proved disastrous to the party. It is also highly likely that the continued hollowing out of the economic middle will increase the appetite for big-government programs. It would seem to be a strategic necessity for Republicans to speak to — and meet — the needs of the middle class.
One of the things that most ails both our country and the future of classical conservatism is the crisis of opportunity. The immigration bill now being pushed through the Senate does little to solve, and possibly does much to worsen, that problem.
We might be struck by the opportunities missed in this immigration bill — particularly the opportunity to talk about opportunity (or the lack thereof) in the contemporary United States. In talking about immigration, Washington has dropped the condescending phrase “jobs Americans won’t do,” but it doesn’t much mention the jobs that aren’t there for Americans to do. It is as though for many in Congress the Great Recession never happened and the Great Stagnation has not persisted.
When incomes are adjusted for inflation, the median American worker earns less per week now than he or she did ten years ago. The employment-to-population ratio has not been lower in decades. Unemployment remains very high. The Economic Policy Institute has argued that “the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers — and not, as is often claimed, available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.” And still the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill insists that one of our principal problems is too few workers — or too few workers with the right skills, or too few workers willing to work for too little. Much of the evidence seems to suggest that we have a very slack labor market, not a very tight one.
While Corker-Hoeven is a masterpiece of public relations, it does not appear to solve some of the central problems of the Senate immigration bill: for example, its failure to substantially reduce illegal immigration (much of which comes from visa-overstayers), its subversion of the market, and its potential downward pressure on wages. This amendment serves as the enforcement equivalent of the Maginot Line, sounding very impressive but ultimately proving less than effective at achieving its stated aim. Twenty thousand new Border Patrol agents will do next to nothing to curtail visa-overstaying or to punish employers who break the law in hiring unauthorized workers. Even one of the senators after whom this amendment is named, Senator Bob Corker, has admitted that the interior enforcement provided by this measure leaves much to be desired, and observers have noted how easily the interior-enforcement provisions of this bill could be gutted. Unlike the Maginot Line, Corker-Hoeven does not quite guarantee any extended physical fortification across the border (either southern or northern), and its border-security provisions — especially the Border Patrol “surge” — remain highly vulnerable to cuts by future Congresses.
The Corker-Hoeven amendment preserves the bill’s central legalization-before-enforcement mechanism. The White House and Senate allies of the Gang of Eight have been very clear that nothing that jeopardizes the immediate legalization of illegal immigrants can become part of the immigration bill; they have also been clear that “hard triggers” of enforcement success that could endanger the eventual citizenship of illegal immigrants are also verboten. Corker-Hoeven meets those requirements, but it remains unclear how much this amendment will actually fulfill the stated goal of ending illegal immigration. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the pre-Corker-Hoeven version of S. 744 would reduce illegal immigration by only 25 percent, implying that the U.S. could see nearly 8.3 million illegal immigrants residing within its borders by 2023. Perhaps Corker-Hoeven would decrease that number by some amount (in a brief report on the amendment, the CBO estimated that it would have some effect but couldn’t say how much of one), but it is not guaranteed that this amendment would radically diminish this new influx, especially considering all the possible enforcement loopholes within the bill.
The failure to end illegal immigration vitiates the bill by the Gang of Eight’s own standards. Senators Rubio and Schumer, among others, have been crystal clear (at least in terms of rhetoric) that illegal immigration needs to end and this bill will do that. In and of itself, some “path to citizenship” may be relatively unobjectionable. Legalizing at some point those who broke our nation’s laws but have settled here might be an effective, and perhaps even necessary, policy response. But the moral and civil case for that legalization is far weaker if we have not yet established and put in place a plan that prevents more illegal immigration from happening. That plan might begin with security at the border, but it does not end there. A bill that encourages even more illegal immigration through the combination of a legalization and incomplete enforcement will only heighten the civic, humanitarian, and economic dangers of pervasive illegal immigration.