Immigration and the GOP
Choosing an unhyphenated American identity


John O’Sullivan

Last week saw two contrasting events concerning the significance of the immigration issue in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election.

The first event was the inaugural meeting of the Billionaires for Open Borders (BOB) campaign at New York’s Union League Club. Several members present (including, alas, the great Rupert Murdoch) reportedly urged Mitt Romney to soften his immigration policy in order to win more Hispanic votes.

Romney seems to have resisted this pressure on the grounds that he would lose more votes than he gained by “flip-flopping” on the issue. (He would lose something in personal reputation, too.) He might have added that his current policy is already a reasonable, indeed generous, compromise because it balances opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants with policies for expanding legal immigration and giving skilled immigration priority over the endless “chain migration” of extended families.

The second event was the upset victory, 57 to 43 percent, of the Tea Party–backed outsider, Ted Cruz, over a strong establishment GOP candidate in Texas’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

In addition to a focus on jobs, Mr. Cruz’s campaign positions included support for traditional marriage, the defense of U.S. sovereignty against global governance, and, not least, an ambitious program of reforms (protecting the border, ending chain migration, reducing overall numbers) to ensure that immigration serves the national interest rather than sectional interests, whether economic or ethnic. Cruz is even listed as a “true reformer” on the NumbersUSA website because his reforms are as “comprehensive” as President Obama’s or John McCain’s but point in a different direction.

At first glance, these two events reveal yet again the GOP’s longstanding difficulty with immigration as a political issue: Its donors want open borders, and its voters want higher fences. But there are deeper lessons, too, and they revolve around the question: What kind of issue is immigration?

Immigration is usually listed as a “social issue” when the pollsters and commentators get around to classifying it. This then marks immigration as something mainly of concern to “the religious Right,” which in turn indicates to many centrist voters that immigration can therefore be of no interest to them.