To use one of the favorite words of the political class: It may be time for Republicans to evolve on immigration. I do not mean here evolution in its conventional sense (i.e., catering to the latest iteration of Beltway chic), but instead trying to adapt enduring principles to confront the issues that we face in 2015. On immigration, we need to apply the principles of opportunity, civic integration, and liberty to the world not as we find it in 1899, 1965, or 1986, but today. As a matter of national security and the long-term defense of republican norms, it is imperative to craft an immigration policy that allows for the integration of immigrants and their families into American society. Current policies may often undermine that aim. Evolution on immigration would help the Republican party in its broader quest to formulate a reinvigorated policy agenda. Prioritizing prudence over nostalgia, this evolution would advance immigration reform that helps immigrants and the native born to come together to forge a united republic. There are some signs that the party may be poised for this evolution, but whether the party takes the necessary steps to realize a forward-looking immigration policy remains unclear.
In the Obama era, Democrats have proposed the following solution to our nation’s growing socioeconomic stratification: increasing government spending while doubling down on many of the policies that worsen this stratification (increasing energy costs, supporting more guest workers, expanding corporate cronyism, etc.). Republicans could respond to this problem by being a more moderate version of the Democratic party — gently escalating rather than exploding government spending and allowing current cronyist policies to continue. Or they could differentiate themselves from Democrats by attempting to confront some of the forces driving this stratification.
In order to address that bigger question, we cannot afford nostalgia, which on immigration is so strong that advocates for doing the same thing over and over again are called reformers. The 1986 amnesty fueled an explosion of illegal immigration; while about 3 million illegal immigrants were legalized in 1986, we now have over 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. A more rigorous effort at immigration reform, which would have implemented the recommendations of the Jordan Commission, was attempted in the mid ’90s, but this effort was killed by an alliance of corporatists and ethnic activists. Since then, elite consensus has established the following three things as the pillars of immigration reform: instant legalization (with or without a path to citizenship), an expansion of guest workers, and Potemkin enforcement. This dogmatic consensus has survived 9/11, the financial crisis, the Great Recession, and the failed recovery. Efforts at implementing such a vision for immigration reform rose in Congress in 2006, 2007, and 2013. Depending on the election results and congressional leadership, we may see such another such effort in 2017.
The fiction of enforcement has led to the growth of a massive underclass in American society.
There’s a reason why many of the strongest Republican opponents of the 2013 Gang of Eight immigration bill were those who wanted to shift the Republican party in the direction of bottom-up economic and civic reforms. From the perspective of an opportunity-oriented conservatism, all three pillars of the current Beltway consensus are either philosophically wrong or practically mistaken. Current guest-worker programs are a species of corporate cronyism, so expanding them is a step away from a conservatism that celebrates market-based economic uplift. The fiction of enforcement has led to the growth of a massive underclass in American society; a refusal to enforce immigration law has encouraged more human trafficking, labor-law abuses, and socioeconomic stratification. There is a conservative case for legalizing those who have resided here illegally for a long time, but this case is destroyed if legalization is not preempted by a strong and effective enforcement regime: The conservative case for legalization relies upon the idea that there is something problematic about having a long-term underclass in American society, but legalization without real enforcement would cause this underclass to grow, which utterly vitiates the argument for legalization as a vehicle for social integration.
Some on the right essentially support an open-borders vision and view enforcing immigration policy at all to be a morally problematic idea. It’s all well and good to believe in open borders, but I fear that open-borders conservatives and libertarians would be disappointed by the upshot of an open-borders America, which would be a much bigger welfare state and more invasive government. Across the Atlantic, Germany and some other European nations are currently experimenting with open borders, and the results so far do not look promising for traditional liberties and limited government. And the hope of walling off government services from immigrants in order to dampen the feedback loop between open borders and the welfare state is likely to be a failed one. If libertarian-leaning conservatives can’t kill the Export-Import Bank, do they really think they’ll succeed in denying federal health-care subsidies or public education to immigrant children? (Many of my friends on the left would also be disappointed by open borders over the medium-to-long term. In the short term, the spiraling inequality caused by open borders might increase the demand for an activist government, but, over the long haul, the fracturing of the body politic caused by hyper-stratification will undermine a public consensus in favor of a well-managed safety net.)
If Republicans want to rejuvenate the GOP as the party of opportunity and liberty, they would be wise to champion reforming the immigration system and other policies so that they enhance economic opportunity for both immigrants and the native born. Currently, many immigrant families face extended economic hardship in the United States. Of course, a number of immigrants come to the United States and realize the dream of economic success. But many others labor in the margins.
The fact that government-assistance use does not drop for immigrant households over time suggests that far too many immigrants struggle to gain real economic traction.
A mammoth report on the use of government assistance prepared by the Center for Immigration Studies examined the percentage of immigrant households that rely on government assistance. These numbers should trouble those who want immigrants to succeed in the 21st-century United States. According to this report, about 30 percent of native-born households used some kind of government assistance in 2012, but 51 percent of immigrant households did. A gap in government assistance persists across all education levels; about a quarter of immigrant households headed by a person with a college degree use government assistance (approximately twice the native-born rate). Nor does this gap in use of government assistance substantially shrink the longer an immigrant household has been in the United States. Fifty percent of households that have been here for fewer than five years use government assistance, and 48 percent of immigrant households that have been here for over 20 years use government assistance. The fact that government-assistance use does not drop for immigrant households over time suggests that far too many immigrants struggle to gain real economic traction.
This increased dependence on government assistance should, of course, not be used to condemn immigrants, but it does suggest that immigrant families face a deficit of opportunity. If Republicans hope to make inroads among immigrant voters, they will need to be able to put forward policies that ensure that immigrants have a chance at real economic success.
EDITORIAL: Stopping the Flow of Illegal Immigrants
Nor are the economic effects of bad-faith open borders confined to the immigrant population. Harvard economist George Borjas has long argued that our current low-skilled immigration policy undermines economic opportunity for workers with lower levels of schooling and training. A new study out from State Politics and Policy Quarterly offers some support for Borjas’s thesis. This study’s authors looked at the effects of immigration on income inequality in various states and found that immigration (particularly low-skilled immigration) significantly increased economic inequality. They argued that low-skilled immigration especially increased inequality between the upper class and all other groups. Our current immigration policies give hedge-fund managers cheaper nannies, landscapers, poultry-factory workers, and carpenters. As the wages for these professions decline, income inequality increases, and more native-born and immigrant families struggle.
By maintaining bad-faith open borders, we deny immigrants today the economic opportunity that immigrants had in the past.
Forty years ago, immigrants could use jobs such as bartender, maid, laborer, and landscaper to climb the economic ladder. This is still possible, but depressed wages for these professions and changes in the U.S. labor market make the climb up that ladder harder. A 1997 report by the National Academy of Sciences noted that, in the past, immigrants who entered the country as young people reached the wage levels of native-born workers after being in the workforce for 20 years. The 1997 report found that this was no longer the case for many immigrant demographic sectors. The 2015 National Academy of Sciences report reinforced the 1997 findings. It cited recent research to demonstrate that immigrant workers do not, on average, economically catch up to native-born workers. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences found that Mexican immigrants, and even many of their descendants, especially struggle; the fact that our largest immigrant group faces particularly keen adversity is of no small concern for a vision of a pro-opportunity America. By maintaining bad-faith open borders, we essentially deny immigrants today the economic opportunity that immigrants had in the past.
A growing population of workers who are unable to make ends meet does not augur well for the Republican party or small-government conservatism. Immigration, as the facts above suggest, could be reformed in order to help arrive at a more integrated and prosperous republic. If we’re going to accept people into the United States, we owe it to them and to ourselves to ensure that they have a reasonable chance to integrate into American society as full economic and political equals.
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Some Republican presidential candidates have tried to evolve on immigration, but the results have often been mixed. Early in 2015, Scott Walker raised some points about how immigration should be responsive to the needs of the American worker. However, he got such visceral blowback from the Beltway consensus that he said relatively little about a concrete, alternative immigration vision. Donald Trump has disrupted the debate about immigration. While his immigration policy paper offers a number of intriguing ideas about immigration reform, his remarks on the campaign trail have tended to focus on broad claims of being “great” for immigrants and flashy but beside-the-point policy proposals, such as having Mexico pay for the wall he proposes building. (Compared with other issues, who pays for a supposed wall is smallball.) Marco Rubio has begun to move away from the failed and fatally flawed Gang of Eight bill, but he has not yet offered a concrete and specific set of proposals for immigration reform going forward.
Once a proponent of quintupling the number of H-1B visas given out annually, Ted Cruz has now released an immigration plan that calls for making this program — and the nation’s immigration policy as a whole — more responsive to the economic conditions on the ground and the interests of the American worker. Rick Santorum has become a more proactive innovator on immigration policy, slamming guest-worker programs and calling for reforms to our legal-immigration system to ensure that Americans of all stripes can prosper. Santorum was an early proponent of the GOP reaching out to the working class in the 2012 cycle, so perhaps his views on immigration will become a leading indicator for a broader Republican evolution on immigration.
As a matter of political positioning, evolving on immigration will be crucial. Republican unwillingness to break from and formulate an alternative to the Beltway consensus leaves the party in a politically awkward position. Too often, Republicans find themselves backed into a defensive crouch on immigration. They pledge no “amnesty” or complain about the president’s executive actions or indulge in punitive comments about illegal immigrants. All this makes the GOP look reactive and surrenders policy direction to the Democratic party. And when Republicans do propose affirmative policies, these policies often undermine the party where it most needs to grow. In terms of expanding the coalition, calling for more H-1B visas, for instance, does absolutely nothing. In fact, it is counterproductive because it alienates struggling working- and middle-class workers, especially those in tech fields. With major tech companies shedding employees left and right, Republicans risk making themselves look like they’re in fantasy land if they persist in lamenting a supposed shortage of workers; let President Obama, who says he supports the middle class while also promoting guest-worker programs that undermine it, rule that unicorn-dotted demesne by himself. For a party that needs desperately to grow in the working and middle classes, it is counterproductive in the extreme to say that we need more guest workers to keep wages from rising.
With a policy evolution on immigration, Republicans can move from a reactive to a proactive stance. This evolution would also allow them to talk about immigration in a manner that builds rather than divides the GOP coalition. A Republican evolution on immigration could include the following proposals:
Reforming immigration flows to ensure integration and maximize the likelihood of immigrants’ economic success.
Allowing for the swifter migration of spouses and minor children of immigrants.
Revising the immigration system so that it rewards hard work and ingenuity rather than dynastic connections.
Reforming guest-worker programs so that they don’t initiate a race to the bottom.
Putting in place a results-driven enforcement regime.
Enforcing labor law to ensure a level playing field.
This new policy approach may also include the eventual legalization of some illegal immigrants, but only after broader reforms to the immigration system (especially but not only enforcement provisions) have been put in place.For too long, Republicans, especially at the upper reaches of the party, have allowed themselves to be seduced by the allure of a long-tired playbook. Despite the massive pressure from many media and financial elites, efforts to pass a misguided vision of immigration reform have failed because this vision does not address some of the real issues facing this nation. An immigration policy that emphasizes opportunity for all Americans — both native-born and immigrants — would pay political dividends for Republicans. It would also strengthen economic opportunity by giving workers, whether born here or abroad, the chance to bargain more effectively for their labor. Confronting the crisis of the economic middle is a goal that should especially concern those who want to defend limited government, and an immigration evolution would help address that crisis. By strengthening enforcement at the border and in our nation’s interior, we can better ward off national-security threats and the more subtle but equally sinister efforts of the sex-slavers, drug-traffickers, and criminal kingpins who prey on people in the shadows. The shadows enabled by bad-faith open borders are a dagger aimed at the heart of a civic republic governed in accordance with the rule of law, so defeating them would be both an economic and political triumph.
Immigrants have been and are a great source of economic and social strength for this nation. We should applaud their many contributions, but applause is not enough. We also need to take action so that those members of the huddled masses who come to our shores need not crouch in the shadows or in cringing servitude but can rise to walk as equals among us — us, from wherever we hail, e pluribus unum.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.