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How the House Should Handle Immigration
Republicans should bear in mind conservative principles and beware Gang supporters.


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This Wednesday, House Republicans are scheduled to hold a meeting on how to proceed with the immigration issue. Here are some points that they might want to keep in mind.

The Senate legislation won’t “fix” the nation’s immigration system. Like Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, it provides legalization before enforcement. It is larded with loopholes for executive discretion and abuse. It creates huge new government programs (such as the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research) to oversee the economy. Its guest-worker programs undermine market principles and will put new pressures on the middle class. It will not end illegal immigration.

A House “compromise” bill that keeps most of these features would be a very small improvement over the Senate bill. Any plan offering legalization first would basically be saying “In Barack Obama We Trust,” at a time when Americans, in the recent string of scandals, are otherwise running up against new reasons not to.

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The Senate bill fixates on “border security,” but border security is not the only point at issue for illegal immigration. Enforcement within the U.S. is crucial; currently, about 40 percent of illegal immigrants are visa-overstayers, a percentage that could grow under the Senate bill because of its increase in the number of temporary visas offered each year. Despite the promises of its supporters, the bill will not end illegal immigration, and it might not even make much of a dent or reduce it at all. The Congressional Budget Office’s most optimistic estimate is that the bill, after all the extra billions that the Corker-Hoeven amendment would send to the border, would cut illegal immigration by a third to a half. That reduced flow could still lead, the CBO implies, to over 7.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States by 2023. That fails the standards professed by Senator Rubio and Senator Schumer. And that number assumes that the promises of enforcement will actually be somewhat realized. There is a very good chance that various provisions — from the fence to the Border Patrol “surge” to E-Verify — could also be put off (witness the Obama administration’s recent decisions to postpone key parts of the health-care law).

Money isn’t everything. Some very large donors may be pushing “comprehensive” immigration reform, but all the money in the world won’t necessarily carry to victory a party without a solid governing philosophy. For a political party, victory at the polls is far more important than vacuuming up donor dollars. Recent electoral history is littered with candidates — from Meg Whitman to Linda McMahon to Rudy Giuliani — who spent big bucks for minimal electoral success. While President Obama significantly outraised Senator John McCain in 2008, this time around Mitt Romney — when individual candidate totals, party funds, and super-PAC spending are accounted for — probably spent about as much as President Obama did. Yet with all those extra hundreds of millions in spending, Governor Romney barely won more votes than Senator McCain and improved on McCain’s share of the popular vote by less than two points and won back two states. And this modest improvement was in an environment much less favorable to Obama than in 2008, which was one of the worst electoral scenarios for the GOP within recent memory.

Lacking a message that addressed some of the central concerns of the economic middle, Republicans struggled with the working and middle classes in 2012. That contributed to the defeat of their presidential nominee and many of their congressional contenders. A Republican candidate can raise a billion dollars in 2016, but without a forward-looking economic policy, conservatives should look forward to more disappointment on November 8, 2016. With its likely downward pressure on wages and economic opportunity for those at the economic middle and margins, the Senate bill could prove a stumbling block for a message of popular economic uplift.

Immigration can boomerang on the president. Some House Republicans — especially in leadership — seem to fear that President Obama will use the House’s failure to pass “comprehensive” reform as a cudgel against the GOP in the 2014 midterms. But Republicans can easily neutralize this strategy, if not use the Senate immigration bill against the White House. The prospect of a vague “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants may have a popular edge at the moment, but now the president has committed himself not to a platitude but to a specific piece of legislation: S. 744.

There are plenty of details in this legislation that Republicans can turn against the president. At a time when recent college graduates in many scientific fields have an unemployment rate over 8 percent (and substantial student-loan burdens), President Obama and Senate Democrats have unified behind a piece of legislation that would allow companies to bring in more people to compete for these jobs. The Great Recession and the failed recovery have shredded the paychecks and employment prospects of many blue-collar workers, and now the president and the Senate would bring in more laborers without college degrees to compete with them (through its guest-worker programs and flawed enforcement strategy). The president is now on record supporting a piece of legislation that even the Beltway-friendly Congressional Budget Office projects could lead to over 7 million more illegal immigrants in the country by the end of 2023. Moreover, the very manner in which S. 744 was passed (rushed through without any further amendments after a backroom deal finalized the legislation) seems almost designed to alienate independents and moderates. Those are a lot of arguments the GOP can use in 2014. It loses access to them, though, if it ends up signing onto some “comprehensive” piece of reform resembling S. 744.



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