Mike Gerson on Immigration and the GOP

by Ramesh Ponnuru

In his latest column, Michael Gerson argues that Republicans need to get behind comprehensive immigration reform in order to be a viable majority party.

Even if immigration reform is not everyone’s top priority in the polls, embracing it would be a signal that Republicans recognize, accept, even welcome that the face of America is changing. . . . Those who think that ethnic outreach is a secondary concern for Republicans are proposing to win the presidency on a map without Florida.

But the working- and middle-class voters of the Rust Belt will also be essential. Which reveals the Republican political challenge in all its complexity. The GOP requires a candidate who can get through a nomination process that includes Iowa and South Carolina, then secure increased support from white middle-class voters in Ohio and Hispanic voters in Florida. The ideal nominee, therefore, would have tea party populist roots, middle-class sensibilities, a policy interest in social mobility and a conspicuously welcoming approach to immigration.

I’m one of the people with whom Gerson jousts in the column, yet I agree with much of what he has to say.

I don’t think ethnic outreach is a secondary concern. But I don’t think that immigration is quite as central to that outreach as a lot of people, apparently including Gerson, believe. I think that if Republicans had a conservative policy agenda that could plausibly be said to yield benefits for most people, as they have in the past, and made the case for it to everyone in the country, they would do better among a lot of groups–including Hispanics, working-class white voters, women, young people, and even blacks. (A lot of Republican outreach talk seems to me to write them off, wrongly). Making this case would be a good idea regardless of what Republicans do and say about immigration. It would also have fewer of the disadvantages, for the country and the party, that “comprehensive immigration reform” has.

I also join Gerson in being in favor of being conspicuously welcoming to immigrants. I’m even open, like a majority of the public, to giving legal status to a lot of illegal immigrants, provided that we already have good reason to think that the law is going to be enforced so that this amnesty–which I think would be the best thing to call it–does not act as a magnet for more illegal immigration. Recent news gives us reason to think that this concern is not theoretical. What I don’t see is the case for a large increase in legal immigration, much of it low-skilled, which is what the CBO projects that the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate would involve. I don’t see the pressing national need to increase immigration, and I don’t think that making inroads among Hispanic voters requires Republicans to do it either. From what I can see, to the extent Hispanic voters are looking at immigration policy for a sign of what Republicans think about them, they are looking at the question of how illegal immigrants are treated–not at whether Republicans are for big increases in the immigrant inflow.

I think, in short, that we can and should be pro-immigrant without being in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. I understand the formidable obstacles to getting the Republicans to take that approach. But I don’t see a better way forward.