EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 31, 2004, issue of National Review.
No issue, not one, threatens to do more damage to the Republican coalition than immigration. There’s no issue where the beliefs and interests of the party rank-and-file diverge more radically from the beliefs and interests of the party’s leaders. Immigration for Republicans in 2005 is what crime was for Democrats in 1965 or abortion in 1975: a vulnerable point at which a strong-minded opponent could drive a wedge that would shatter the GOP.
President Bush won reelection because he won 10 million more votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. Who were these people? According to Ruy Teixeira–a shrewd Democratic analyst of voting trends–Bush scored his largest proportional gains among white voters who didn’t complete college, especially women. These voters rallied to the president for two principal reasons: because they respected him as a man who lived by their treasured values of work, family, honesty, and faith; and because they trusted him to keep the country safe.
Yet Bush is already signaling that he intends to revive the amnesty/guestworker immigration plan he introduced a year ago–and hastily dropped after it ignited a firestorm of opposition. This plan dangerously divides the Republican party and affronts crucial segments of the Republican vote.
The plan is not usually described as an “amnesty” because it does not immediately legalize illegal workers in this country. Instead, it offers illegals a three-year temporary work permit. But this temporary permit would be indefinitely renewable and would allow illegals a route to permanent residency, so it is reasonably predictable that almost all of those illegals who obtain the permit will end up settling permanently in the United States. The plan also recreates the guestworker program of the 1950s–allowing employers who cannot find labor at the wages they wish to pay to advertise for workers outside the country. Those workers would likewise begin with a theoretically temporary status; but they too would probably end up settling permanently.
This is a remarkably relaxed approach to a serious border-security and labor-market problem. Employers who use illegal labor have systematically distorted the American labor market by reducing wages and evading taxes in violation of the rules that others follow. The president’s plans ratify this gaming of the system and encourage more of it. It invites entry by an ever-expanding number of low-skilled workers, threatening the livelihoods of low-skilled Americans–the very same ones who turned out for the president in November.
National Review has historically favored greater restrictions on legal as well as illegal immigration. But you don’t have to travel all the way down the NR highway to be troubled by the prospect of huge increases in immigration, with the greatest increases likely to occur among the least skilled.
The president’s permissive approach has emboldened senators and mayors (such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg) to oppose almost all enforcement actions against illegals. In September 2003, for example, Bloomberg signed an executive order forbidding New York police to share information on immigration offenses with the Immigration Service, except when the illegal broke some other law or was suspected of terrorist activity. And only last month, a House-Senate conference stripped from the intelligence-overhaul bill almost all the border-security measures recommended by the 9/11 commission.
The president’s coalition is already fracturing from the tension between his approach to immigration and that favored by voters across the country. Sixty-seven House Republicans–almost one-third of the caucus–voted against the final version of the intelligence overhaul. And I can testify firsthand to the unpopularity of the amnesty/guestworker idea: I was on the conservative talk-radio circuit promoting a book when the president’s plan was first proposed last January. Everywhere I went, the phones lit up with calls from outraged listeners who wanted to talk about little else. Every host I asked agreed: They had not seen such a sudden, spontaneous, and unanimous explosion of wrath from their callers in years…
YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE IN THE CURRENT ISSUE OF THE DIGITAL VERSION OF NATIONAL REVIEW. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A SUBSCRIPTION TO NR DIGITAL OR NATIONAL REVIEW, YOU CAN SIGN UP FOR A SUBSCRIPTION TO NATIONAL REVIEW here OR NATIONAL REVIEW DIGITAL here (a subscription to NR includes Digital access).