As the Obama administration prepares a second push to get a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress, conservative opponents of the Gang of Eight legislation are digging in for a fight. They’ll have their work cut out for them.
Backing the push for comprehensive reform is an array of deep-pocketed special interests from an ostensibly diverse range of ideological perspectives, including the Chamber of Commerce, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, and others. Zuckerberg alone has said he plans to spend $50 million, raised from donors in the technology industry, on ads supporting a comprehensive immigration bill.
The opposition, meanwhile, is limited to Heritage Action and a coalition of smaller conservative groups. Other prominent activist organizations such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, which tend to be more fiscally oriented and libertarian leaning, have opted to stay on the sidelines.
“There’s virtually nobody organized against comprehensive immigration reform,” Representative John Yarmuth (D., Ky.) told NBC News earlier this month, sounding a note of optimism. “There is no money on the other side of the issue. There is nobody out there ready to spend $100 million against this.”
For the most part, conservatives skeptical of the sweeping immigration overhaul championed by the Gang of Eight shrug in the face of such a well-financed campaign. “We will never be able to compete with the money, but that’s a tale as old as time,” says a senior conservative aide opposed to the Gang of Eight bill. They would just like to see a more honest assessment of the factors motivating support for a comprehensive bill.
The sheer scope of the alliance supporting a Gang of Eight–style bill this time around is rather daunting. It is also a rather recent development. The New York Times editorial board, for example, which is often seen as the arbiter of left-wing conventional wisdom, was warning in 2000 that “amnesty would undermine the integrity of the country’s immigration laws” and depress the wages of low-skill Americans. The board is now fully behind the Gang’s effort.
Big Labor, particularly the AFL-CIO and their pro-union allies in the Democratic party, is also a relatively recent convert to the cause of comprehensive immigration reform. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessment of the Gang of Eight legislation, the bill’s provisions would create an “influx” of low-skilled, low-wage workers over the next decade, and, as a result, “the unemployment rate would be slightly higher than it otherwise would be and average wages would be slightly lower.”
A number of Democratic senators cited these very concerns in opposition to the comprehensive-immigration-reform bill backed by President George W. Bush in 2007, which was also opposed by the AFL-CIO. The bill, which called for an expansion of the guest-worker program, would “exert downward pressure on wages at a time when we are already losing our middle class,” Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) warned at the time. Years later, Boxer would praise the Gang of Eight bill, which included an expanded guest-worker program. This one, co-designed by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, she said would “increase wages for workers.”
Conservatives suspect that Big Labor’s support for the Gang of Eight bill might have something to do with the fact that union membership has fallen steadily since 2007, to just 11.3 percent of the workforce as of 2012. Millions of new workers mean millions of potential dues-paying union members, even if the wages of existing members will be slightly lower as a result.
This means that, ironically enough, on this issue Big Labor’s interests are now aligned with those of Big Business, which has always salivated at the prospect of bringing in more cheap labor — whether via amnesty for illegal immigrants or expanded guest-worker programs.
The rise of Silicon Valley and the technology industry as a political and financial powerhouse is another relatively recent phenomenon. The industry has a clear interest in the Gang of Eight’s expansion of the H-1B visa program for immigrants employed in high-tech jobs, although Zuckerberg insists that industry donors are motivated by “humanitarian reasons.” Critics note that some American companies lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform have actually shed jobs in recent years.
Meanwhile, the media’s reporting on the immigration debate has tended to equate support for “immigration reform” with support for giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, while opponents of the Gang of Eight bill “oppose reform.” There has been very little, if any, effort to promote a national debate about the merits of the non-citizenship-related provisions of the legislation, or to discuss the motivations of its biggest political and financial supporters.
Some conservatives are skeptical of any effort to reform the immigration system because they do not trust the Obama administration to adequately implement the border-security and enforcement measures they consider essential to any bill. Backers such as the Chamber of Commerce, Mark Zuckerberg, and the AFL-CIO would almost certainly get what they want regardless of whether the administration decided to enforce those aspects of the law. The people who would be worst affected — border-security and immigration-enforcement officers — happen to be among the Gang of Eight’s staunchest opponents.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.