To-Do over Tallent

by Andrew Stiles
Gang of Eighters cheer Boehner’s pick to lead immigration-reform efforts.

Much of the reporting on House Speaker John Boehner’s hiring of Rebecca Tallent to “lead immigration efforts in the House” has focused on her experience as a senior aide to Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) and her work with the late senator Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) on the failed immigration-reform efforts of 2006–7. Less has been made of her most recent position as director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a think tank founded by a group of former Senate majority leaders from both parties. This association, critics say, is far more relevant to the current immigration debate — or lack thereof.

Opponents of the Gang of Eight legislation have long complained that the debate over immigration reform is portrayed in the media almost exclusively as a question of whether or not to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. There has been almost no discussion, for example, about the significant increase in low-skilled immigration called for in the Senate bill.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that, under the proposed law, “a greater number of immigrants with lower skills than with higher skills would be added to the workforce, slightly pushing down the average wage for the labor force as a whole, other things being equal.” Polling suggests that most Americans would be unlikely to embrace such a policy, even though most pollsters have shown little interest in gauging popular support for aspects of immigration reform that involve questions other than citizenship.  

Consider BPC, whose board of directors boasts a number of lobbyists, CEOs, and former lawmakers who are at the center of what might be considered the “Beltway consensus” on immigration reform, backed by a deep-pocketed alliance that includes Big Labor, the Chamber of Commerce, Silicon Valley, K Street, and a slew of progressive activist groups. Each group has a vested interest in Gang of Eight–style immigration reform, with big businesses particularly eager to take advantage of the influx of low-skill (and low-cost) workers projected by the CBO.

What’s interesting is that immigration reform is a rare instance of Beltway consensus that the Left is entirely on board with. Progressives, for example, are generally skeptical of bipartisan proposals to reduce the deficit. And earlier this week, many  scoffed when two leaders (both former Democratic staffers) of the think tank Third Way wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging Democrats to eschew the “economic populism” championed by the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

Many leftists used to be skeptical of comprehensive immigration reform as well. In fact, Democrats’ concern (and that of their labor-union allies) about the negative impact on wages helped derail immigration-reform efforts in 2007. In 2000, the New York Times editorial board argued against amnesty for illegal immigrants, warning that it “would undermine the integrity of the country’s immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers” and would be “unfair to unskilled workers already in the United States.”

This time around, Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) was essentially the lone voice on the left when he argued that allowing hundreds of thousands of low-skill immigrants to enter the country might not be the best idea given the high unemployment rate, particularly among America’s youth.

Republicans, on the other hand, have occasionally struggled to articulate the pro-business rationale for immigration reform. During the August recess, Alabama representative Spencer Bachus explained his support for immigration reform by telling constituents about a conversation he’d had with a local restaurant owner who said he preferred to hire immigrant workers because they never ask for a raise or promotion.

Earlier this year, Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) caught grief after an unidentified member of his staff told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza: “There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it. There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.”

That is an argument Boehner’s latest hire echoed — albeit in more diplomatic fashion — during an August appearance on C-SPAN. “Whether we want to admit it or not — and this is probably going to get me some angry callers — there are jobs that Americans workers will not do,” Tallent said.

On the issue of low-skill and low-wage workers, the GOP’s traditional alliance with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business interests has divided, and somewhat confounded, the Republican party. Gang of Eight opponents such as Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) have pushed back strongly against the “Americans can’t cut it” argument for immigration reform, noting that a number of U.S. corporations are laying off thousands of workers even as they are lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform that would presumably allow them to hire immigrants at lower wages. Big businesses stand to benefit from Gang of Eight–style reform, as do unions hoping to stem a steady decline in membership over the past decades, but what about “unskilled workers already in the United States,” whom the New York Times was once so concerned about? Sessions is one of the few lawmakers asking that question.

On the other side, groups such as the Bipartisan Policy Center have churned out several studies touting immigration reform as a “powerful instrument of economic revitalization” and have also deployed an extensive lobbying operation, backed by plenty of funding. As Representative John Yarmuth (D., Ky.) said in October: “There is no money on the other side of the issue. There is nobody out there ready to spend $100 million” to block comprehensive immigration reform.

One senior GOP aide suggested that Tallent’s hiring indicates a “corporate influence” over the immigration debate. Whether it will have any impact on the political or policy outcomes is another question. The announcement was greeted with optimism by Gang of Eight proponents, and with concern by skeptics. Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), a former congressman and member of the Gang of Eight, called it a “good move,” adding: “Immigration reform just got kicked up a notch or two.” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, hailed Boehner’s decision to bring Tallent on board: “Hiring Becky is an important signal that the Speaker is serious about achieving a legislative result. . . . He hired someone who knows how to get to yes.”

Boehner’s office, meanwhile, insists that nothing has changed. “The Speaker has been pretty clear where he stands: He believes we need to reform our broken immigration laws with a step-by-step, common-sense approach,” spokesman Michael Steel said in an e-mail. “Obviously, the massive bill passed by the Senate is a non-starter.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.