In his comments about immigration in last night’s debate, Newt Gingrich played a card not often seen these days in GOP circles: the red card.
“The Krieble Foundation has [proposed] a very good ‘red card’ program that says you get to be legal, but you don’t get a path to citizenship,” Gingrich said. “And so there’s a way to ultimately end up with a country where there’s no more illegality, but you haven’t automatically given amnesty to anyone.”
The red-card policy, explains the Krieble Foundation’s Greg Walcher, “would allow private employment agencies to open offices in foreign countries, and would empower them to issue work permits in the form of smart cards.”
“The employment company would run the workers through background checks to make sure they’re not criminals, and then issue the smart card, which enables them to come and go across the border at will so long as they have a job,” Walcher adds. “In other words, it matches specific workers to specific jobs, and then gives them a card that encodes in it all the information that might be needed either by border guards or law enforcement or the employer.” As Gingrich noted, a red card does not grant a path to citizenship.
The red-card program is unrelated to a different immigration topic that Gingrich broached last night: allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country. Under the red-card program, illegal immigrants would have to leave before applying, and could return only if they found jobs. Gingrich said he is ready “to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”
Helen Krieble, the Krieble Foundation’s founder and president, explains that her interest in the topic began when she was trying to hire workers to tend her horses and had trouble finding legal employees. “I’ve never met an employer who wants to hire an illegal, and I’ve never met an illegal who wanted to be illegal, but there’s no way to fix it,” she remarks. Currently, the government issues only a small number of temporary-worker visas to low-skilled workers.
The red-card policy has gained some notable supporters over the years. In addition to Gingrich, conservative Indiana congressman Mike Pence has shown support, as have Freedomworks president and CEO Matt Kibbe and Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles executive director Alfonso Aguilar.
“This is a creative, conservative, free-market proposal on immigration, and I think Speaker Gingrich is right in embracing it,” says Aguilar, who was the chief of the U.S. office of citizenship in the George W. Bush administration. “I think that the debate sometimes is oversimplified — this is something Speaker Gingrich has said before as well. We’re kind of, as conservatives, forced to choose between ‘open borders’ and ‘deport everyone.’ Those two are unrealistic alternatives. As conservatives, we’re for the rule of the law, but we’re also for the free market.”
“Immigrants are coming here first and foremost for economic reasons, to take jobs that Americans don’t want or that there are no Americans to fill,” Aguilar adds, arguing that it will boost the economy if American companies that cannot find American workers to do certain jobs are able to hire workers from abroad.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” Center for Immigration Studies, doesn’t see the red-card program as a credible solution to the immigration problem. “Temporary-worker programs never work,” he says. “Anywhere. Ever. They always lead to high levels of permanent immigration.” Another issue is their impact on American innovation; Krikorian argues that when cheap labor is available, agricultural companies rely on that rather than purchase or develop technologies to get the work done more efficiently.
Furthermore, Krikorian is skeptical that the red-card program’s requirement that workers leave the country when they are no longer employed would be enforced. “If we’re not enforcing the law now, why does anybody imagine we’re going to enforce the law in the future?” he asks. “Show me the enforcement first.”
He also notes that as long as America has birthright citizenship — the policy of giving citizenship to the American-born children of illegal immigrants, based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s decree that “persons born . . . in the United States” are citizens — there will be problems when guest workers have children in the United States. While the Krieble Foundation opposes birthright citizenship, it would be an arduous task to change the status quo, requiring either a law (that could be overturned by the Supreme Court) or a constitutional amendment.
Regarding the argument that temporary workers disproportionately use government-funded services such as schools and medical care, the red-card policy proposes that these workers’ Social Security taxes be redirected to state governments to offset the costs. Non-citizen workers do not receive benefits from Social Security, so it makes sense not to make them contribute to the program, but it’s not clear whether these funds would be enough to recoup the costs incurred by state governments.
A May poll commissioned by the Latino Partnership and conducted by the Tarrance Group suggests that Republican voters are more open to something along the lines of the red-card policy than the initial reaction to Gingrich’s remarks suggests. Fifty-six percent of likely Republican-primary voters supported an immigration plan that included investing resources in securing the border and creating a temporary-worker program designed for those who want to come in and out of the country to work; 39 percent opposed such a policy.
Aguilar also thinks that the Republican candidates, particularly Mitt Romney, might do well to consider more the impact of their immigration positions and rhetoric in the general election. “The problem with the negative narrative on immigration is that if you become the nominee, then you’re going to have a hard time getting enough Latino voter support to win the election,” Aguilar warns.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.