Illegal immigration is a curious subject: It is one of the few domains in which the authorities entrusted with enforcing the law feel obliged to negotiate the most concessionary terms and conditions with those who are breaking it, as though law enforcement were an embarrassing inconvenience. But the rule of law, national security, and economic dynamism are not mere pro forma matters — they are in fact fundamental, a reality lost on our would-be “comprehensive” immigration reformers.
There are several new immigration proposals in the political pipeline: one from President Obama, one from a bipartisan group in the Senate, and one from a bipartisan group in the House. Each of the proposals contains an amnesty for the dozen million or so illegals already in the country, and none of them contains adequate security provisions. Panicked Republicans are looking for a grand bargain, but they are wrong on both the politics and the policy. Piecemeal reform emphasizing empirical security benchmarks is a far better option.
The terms of the amnesty vary in the different proposals, but is far from obvious that there should be a “path to citizenship” on any terms for illegals at this time. Whether it is desirable to regularize the status of those illegals already here, and on what terms such a regularization might be offered, are questions that can be answered only when the immigration system is under control. That is a matter of political prudence — the experience of the 1980s amnesty suggests that it is easier to offer an amnesty than to secure the border — but also of context: Reviewing and processing the millions of illegals already here would be a vast administrative task, and we will not know how to go about managing it intelligently until we see what the environment looks like after illegal immigration is under control.
Why an amnesty now? Maybe it is only the polls. John McCain, a principal instigator of the Senate group, has made his motives clear: “Elections, elections — the Republican party is losing the support of Hispanic citizens.” His plan apparently is to develop a bipartisan approach to helping Republicans win elections; perhaps Chuck Schumer imagines other outcomes. Senator McCain has not said why he believes that the interests of Hispanic citizens are to be identified with those of non-citizens, why those interests should trump the interests of citizens (including Hispanic citizens) harmed by the lawlessness of our borders, or why a senator with an established record for supporting amnesty could not muster one in three votes from those Hispanic citizens.
Republican immigration reformers with an eye to political reality should begin by appreciating that Latinos are a Democratic constituency. They did not vote for Mitt Romney. They did not vote for John McCain. They did not vote for George W. Bush, and in the election before that they did not vote for George W. Bush again. In 1998, George W. Bush was reelected to the governorship of Texas with 27 percent of the African-American vote — an astonishing number for an unabashed conservative. Bush won 68 percent of the overall vote in that election, carrying 240 out of Texas’s 254 counties. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Gary Mauro.
And, if we are to take Hispanics at their word, conservative attitudes toward illegal immigration are a minor reason for their voting preferences. While many are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls. They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey. Given the growing size of the Hispanic vote, it would help Republicans significantly to lose it by smaller margins than they have recently. But the idea that an amnesty is going to put Latinos squarely in the GOP tent is a fantasy.