A Time to Fight
Conservatives should oppose the Senate immigration proposal, and can gain much from doing so.

Border enforcement rally in Phoenix, Az., in 2010.


John O’Sullivan

Fifth, this is a fight in which the American people are on one side and all the “Bigs” are on the other. They have Big Business, Big Labor, Big Money, Big Media, Big Religion (usually known for its small congregations), Big Academia, and Big Activism. But all these forces — including the leaderships of both major parties in Congress — were in favor of the two earlier amnesty bills before Congress. Both of those bills were opposed by only a grassroots campaign supporting a few brave senators and representatives. But the grassroots won and the establishments were defeated. It can happen again, and the battle itself will demonstrate just which side of politics represents the people and which side the rich and powerful.

Sixth, even if we lose, such a populist campaign would be a terrific organizing event. It could rally a third conservative movement, bringing over to the right another generation of blue-collar conservatives, as Goldwater’s campaign rallied the first conservative wave and the 1976 and 1980 elections brought over the Reagan Democrats in the second. This is an issue that people care about both for its own sake and because it crystallizes their sense that America is being hijacked by a progressive establishment that despises them.

Seventh, such a campaign might also create a new group of leaders for the GOP. Remember that the fight to defeat the Panama Canal bill was a losing one. But it rallied the conservative movement and ensured that Ronald Reagan would be the Republican candidate in 1980. Reagan lost the battle over the bill, but he defeated the conservative establishment (led, ironically, by Bill Buckley on this occasion), winning the soul of the party. If conservatives force the issue, Marco Rubio might suddenly have to discover second thoughts (for the third time?) on immigration policy. And Ted Cruz is waiting in the wings . . . 

Eighth, a genuine knock-down, drag-out fight over this proposal would also make the American people much better informed about the entire immigration issue. At present most Americans know about the “DREAM Act” and little else. They have almost no idea that the current levels of legal immigration amount to approximately 1 million people a year, for instance, or that the proposed new legislation would invite much larger numbers than that into America. The polls over many years have shown that the more information voters have about immigration, the less likely they are to support liberalizing measures like the one now on offer. Those who support the bill fear this. They know that the longer and more vigorous the debate, the more likely they are to lose it. Conservatives have everything to gain by prolonging the debate and providing the facts.

Ninth, Latinos, Asians, blacks, and other minorities are like other Americans in being only moderately informed about immigration. At present what they mainly know is the Big Media narrative that opposition to open borders is probably a synonym for xenophobia, racism, or “bitterness.” For this, Republicans are partly to blame because they almost never give a coherent defense of their immigration policies. (They close their eyes and hope the issue will go away.) In reality, there is a strong case for lower immigration on the basis of defending the rights and incomes of low-income citizens, including minority Americans. A political battle would compel conservatives to make this case to all Americans — including the substantial minorities within minorities who know this from experience. Treating Latinos and other minorities as intelligent fellow citizens whom we can convince of our common interests is more likely to win their support than Hispandering and Hispanicking.

Tenth, this issue isn’t going away — as McCain et al. seem to think. Even if this bill goes through and an amnesty is granted, the same problem will recur in about a decade, as it has after every amnesty. Conservatives should hone their arguments now and, unlike the Hapsburgs, fight in the first ditch rather than in the last.

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.