How the House Should Handle Immigration

by Fred Bauer
Republicans should bear in mind conservative principles and beware Gang supporters.

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.

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.

Think about the long term. Jay Cost has argued in the The Weekly Standard that “the Gang of Eight bill hurts the Republican party in ways that are central to its long-term viability.” In the Senate, a minority of Republicans, led by Marco Rubio, endorsed an immigration bill that, unfortunately, looks as though it could be a thoroughly backward-looking measure in terms of rejuvenating the party and restoring the nation’s economy. Its answer for a nation with stagnating opportunity, an out-of-control bureaucracy, and heightening civic divisions is lower wages, an even bigger bureaucracy, and more second-class residents. There is no reason for the House GOP to repeat these mistakes. The breakdown in economic opportunity and the collapse of the Republican party’s standing in the working class is very bad news for the GOP and the future of conservatism, and the House must be sure not to exacerbate it.

Think beyond identity politics. Many proponents of this unworkable “comprehensive” reform often slip into the language of identity politics. In response to this collectivist tendency, allies of forward-looking immigration reform can respond with some of the following questions.

Does this piece of legislation affirm the civic dignity of all Americans? Does it promote economic opportunity for Americans of all stripes, from high-school dropouts to MBAs? Does it reknit the commonwealth under the law? Does it restore civic trust?

Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that S. 744 — and any potential House legislation in essential harmony with that bill — answers those questions in the negative. A report released by the Center for Immigration Studies last week revealed collapsing levels in employment for native-born Americans in a variety of categories, including those without a college degree and those younger than 30. This decrease cannot be solely attributed to the Great Recession; many of those numbers were falling prior to 2008. When we need to restore market demand and open up opportunity for Americans, more downward pressure on workers through more illegal immigration, guest-worker programs, and poorly designed legal-immigration pathways seems a problematic proposition at best.

Realize that any immigration bill is not going to take immigration “off the table.” Any argument that says the GOP should support such a measure to remove immigration as a political issue should be treated with immediate suspicion. Millions would be left as illegal immigrants under the Senate plan and most other legalization plans, and millions more illegal immigrants, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would arrive over the next ten years. Many provisions of the Senate bill — from the long wait time for citizenship to the status of guest workers — provide plenty of opportunities for the Left to demagogue this issue. Any changes to U.S. immigration law also change the future composition of the body politic. Immigration as a national policy question has not been “off the table” since 1789; don’t expect the latest link of congressional sausage to change that.

Huge guest-worker programs are not a free-market solution. The free market demands that workers be able to bargain freely and openly for their labor. The H-1B-visa changes and the W-visa plan of the Senate bill place radical limits on the ability of guest workers to find the best jobs for themselves, and this undermining of the market could have significant implications for legal immigrants and U.S. workers. These plans restrict where guest workers can seek employment, and they create numerous bureaucratic distortions of the market. Meanwhile, the complicated (and loophole-ridden) nature of these plans would often seem to favor the connected at the expense of the average worker and employer. Abraham Lincoln and other founders of the Republican party understood the alliance between free markets and free labor; huge guest-worker programs seem to be just about the antithesis of the free movement of labor so important for American capitalism.

Beware anointed mediators. Marco Rubio was supposed to act as a conservative voice in negotiations over the Senate bill, but it has become increasingly clear that one of Rubio’s main purposes was, as Senator Robert Mendendez said, to “neutralize” conservative opposition to the bill. No matter how sterling the “conservative” credentials of various ambassadors for “reform,” Republicans should not surrender their own individual judgment. Instead, they should keep an eye on principle and on the facts of any given piece of legislation.

Especially beware conference. Whatever bill the House passes on immigration, if that bill goes to conference with S. 744, all bets are off. As Bill Kristol has noted, “once they go to conference, the Senate can dominate the conference, [and] the few renegade House Republicans can team with House Democrats to end up with a conference report.” A House–Senate conference on S. 744 could be the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of the Gang of Eight bill writ large, with Gang of Eight allies (spoken and unspoken) working in concert to nullify any opposition. Going to conference only strengthens the hands of those who back the essential structure of the Senate bill. So far, proponents of “comprehensive” reform have had their most success away from the sunlight, and a conference committee is exactly the kind of backroom environment ideal for the allies of the Senate bill. Corker-Hoeven was a dress rehearsal for the most likely strategy for passing a “comprehensive” reform bill: Meet in secret, have the White House and its allies draft a bill long on gimmicks but short on results, use key Republicans to defuse rigorous criticism of the bill, lard up the measure with pork, and try to rush this new “compromise” through the House and the Senate. Proponents of serious, results-oriented immigration reform have much to lose and little to gain from going to conference with the Senate on its immigration plan.

Develop a positive agenda. The past few weeks of debate over immigration reform have revealed numerous problems for the Republican party and its future. These debates have heightened divisions within the party, afforded the administration and its media allies (with an assist from some Republicans) to smear the GOP as a party of racists, and sucked up the oxygen within the Right needed to push reforms that would really help the party and the country. James Pethokoukis and others have written about the possible electoral value of taking on financial reform, and health-care reform offers another plausible electoral prospect. The president’s delay of the Obamacare mandate presents a gift-wrapped opportunity to Republicans, but they can’t make the most of that chance if they’re too busy delivering on the president’s other key domestic-policy measure. Those Republicans looking to put forward alternative pieces of immigration legislation might find it helpful to peruse these suggestions by Charles C. W. Cooke. The GOP should make a case on its own terms — not on the terms of the White House and its Democratic allies.

Congress will be held accountable. Some senators may hope that time will help voters forget the yawning gulfs between their election-year statements and their votes for this bill, but House members don’t have this advantage. In a little over a year, each member will be held accountable to the voters of his or her district; in even less time, each member could be held accountable to primary voters. Because of aggressive gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 census, many Republicans are in “safe” districts, making them even more directly accountable to Republicans and independents and potentially vulnerable to primary challenges. Meanwhile, those GOP members living in swing districts need Republican-friendly turnout to be as high as possible. Passing an immigration bill harmful to the interests of many Americans and opposed to many conservative principles would seem an ideal way to depress Republican turnout and increase the odds that such districts will flip to the Democrats.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.