GOP Should Face Facts on Immigration Reform

by Lamar Smith
Republicans will benefit by working to make more Hispanics middle class.

Americans should take it as a compliment that a sizable chunk of the world’s population would come to the U.S. if they could. That’s because of the freedom and economic opportunity we offer.

But America already admits 1 million legal immigrants every year, far more than any other nation. Our generosity should continue. In writing our immigration laws, though, we have every right and responsibility to put the interests of American workers and taxpayers first.

Others want to put illegal immigrants and foreign workers first. They seize on two numbers to club opponents into submission — 27 percent and 11 million. Both figures are used in deceptive ways.

In running for president, Mitt Romney received about 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Over the past three decades, the average for Republican candidates has been 30 percent. (Bob Dole garnered 21 percent in 1996.) The 27 percent is often compared unfavorably with the 40 percent that, according to one poll, George Bush won in 2004. Other surveys found Bush closer to 32 percent. Furthermore, Bush outspent John Kerry in 2004 on Spanish-language media while Barack Obama outspent Romney in 2012 by a margin of 12 to 1. It’s a wonder Romney took as much as 27 percent.

Another fact is that Romney attracted far more support from middle-class Hispanics than from Hispanics as a whole. Romney garnered only 17 percent of Hispanic voters with incomes less than $50,000 a year, but 39 percent among Hispanics with incomes of $50,000 or more. (The average income of an illegal-immigrant household is between $35,000 and $38,000.) The obvious message to Republicans is that they should help Hispanics join the middle class.

Republicans can and must appeal to Hispanic voters, but we should start with the facts, not fiction, before deciding on the best way forward.

Under this administration, unemployment for Hispanics remains over 9 percent. Hispanic students are twice as likely as students overall to never finish high school. And family incomes for all Americans, including Hispanics, have dropped.

A 2012 Pew Hispanic Center poll found that, among issues Hispanic voters care about, immigration ranks below the economy, jobs, and health care. So the way forward is clear — emphasize the need for educational opportunities for young Hispanics and the need for more and better jobs for adults.

As for Democrats who claim that Republicans must endorse legalization for the millions of people in the country illegally, we know their real motive from their own words. Here is a sample from the director of the TransBorder Project: “The legalization of 11 million new immigrants would likely cement the [Democratic] party’s position as the majority party for decades to come.”

The Pew Hispanic Center found that only 12 percent of first-generation Hispanics would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger government providing more services, compared with 48 percent of Americans generally.

Republicans are wasting their time trying to outbid Democrats in offering government benefits to illegal immigrants. Again, they should concentrate on building the Hispanic middle class.

Illegal immigration will always exist, regardless of what immigration bill is enacted. Some immigrants will not want to wait in line, others will work illegally, and still others will use fraudulent documents. So legalizing everyone in the country will not solve the problem; rather, it will encourage more illegal immigration.

Also, legalization would enable illegal immigrants to work in the United States. The increase in competition would harm employment prospects and depress the wages of American workers, as a recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies shows.

Under many of the proposals before Congress, immigration would increase substantially, even though most Americans don’t support an increase. One quarter of all Americans today are first- or second-generation immigrants — a percentage last reached 100 years ago and then followed by almost no immigration for half a century. That policy enabled immigrants to find jobs, assimilate, and become Americans. No such “pause” is being considered now — just the opposite.

Last year, many prominent politicians said Hispanic voters would flock to the Republican party if Republicans legalized illegal immigrants. Those same politicians have abandoned that position and now say that immigration is a “gateway” issue that must be resolved before Hispanic voters will listen to Republicans. Well, yes, if Republicans keep talking about immigration to the exclusion of other subjects, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is exactly what Democrats want Republicans to do: keep playing on the Democrats’ turf. Republicans should refuse to be lured into the trap and instead should address issues more important to Hispanics.

Republicans can splinter the clubs of 27 percent and 11 million if they stick to the facts, pick the right issues, and go on offense.

 Lamar Smith (R., Texas) is the former House Judiciary Committee chairman and serves on the immigration subcommittee.