The Immigrant Song
Conservatives can start singing it to the entire country again.


Lee Habeeb

They crossed the border. By the millions, they crossed a desert, often at the hands of smugglers known as “coyotes,” seeking work. Seeking manual labor, mostly — seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Until they stopped coming.

The workers in Mexico got the message. They didn’t need the Wall Street Journal to tell them the Obama economy was a shambles. They stopped coming because the work dried up.

Roughly 6.1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants were living in the U.S. last year, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center study. You’d think a drop-off like that would have hurt the Obama administration and Democrats with Hispanic voters, but Obama won their vote with a record 71 percent.

He won it because a contingent of conservatives created the impression that they thought those workers were a threat to our country, coming here for government handouts. But they were coming here for the same reason immigrants have been coming here legally for centuries: economic opportunity.

Some members of the GOP understood this. President George W. Bush did. He tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform, only to be thwarted by Republicans in Congress. John McCain was a champion of comprehensive immigration reform during much of the last decade — until he wasn’t. McCain faced opposition from illegal-immigration hawk J. D. Hayworth during his 2010 Senate run; fearing a backlash from primary voters, he changed both his tone and his stance on the issue.

And then it was Mitt Romney’s turn to prove his illegal-immigration bona fides. Asked during a GOP debate how he would address the issue, he told the nation he favored “self-deportation.”

How did it come to this? How can the GOP fix its problems with Hispanics — and with immigrants in general, legal and illegal? Romney won only 27 percent of the Asian vote in 2012.

Some will urge the GOP to get behind comprehensive immigration reform. Others will urge H-1B Visa reform. But policy positioning alone won’t make up for the GOP’s messaging ineptitude. Nor will attempts to reverse-engineer the Democrats’ success with more data mining and pandering to individual interest groups. If we learned anything from 2012, it’s that we have little to learn from 2012. Billions of dollars were spent for advice from experts and grassroots gurus, and 13 million fewer Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008.

This much we know: When Mitt Romney went on his 47 percent riff at a fundraiser last spring, he reinforced the all-too-common perception that the GOP is the party of CEOs and the affluent, rather than the party that fights for all Americans — and that wants to create opportunity for all Americans.

Indeed, the GOP is the champion of the opportunity society. It’s the Democrats who have staked their claim on equality of outcome, rather than equal opportunity for all. It’s the Democrats who repeatedly propose government solutions to difficult problems, dispensing funds to favored groups, while the GOP seeks to empower individual choice and the private sector.

That’s a substantive messaging opportunity for conservatives, if only we seize it.

How do we do that? Here’s an idea: Start talking about education a whole lot more, and fairness. Let’s talk about a revolution in education reform that’s waiting to take off if the unions — which pour billions into the Democrats’ coffers in exchange for favorable treatment — get out of the way. Let’s talk about charter schools and online education and the KIPP Academy, and make people such as Geoffrey Canada (founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone) and Michelle Rhee (former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public-school system and founder of StudentsFirst) household names.