Politics & Policy

Migrant Politics

Those of our conservative friends who favor continuous mass immigration keep telling us that this position is the natural one for Reaganite optimists. But their paeans to optimism mask a deeper pessimism and even fatalism. What, after all, are their principal arguments for a guest-worker program and for the legalization of illegal immigrants? Their policy argument is that we can’t secure our borders, can’t function without 1.5 million newcomers a year, and can’t deport illegal immigrants who are already here. That many “can’t”s cancel out the optimistic cant. Their political argument, meanwhile, is based fairly openly on panic: Republicans will become a minority party if they alienate Hispanics, and enforcing laws against illegal immigration without creating a guest-worker program or enacting an amnesty will alienate them.

Note that there is no serious argument for an upside here. The idea that Republicans are going to win over Hispanics by promoting a guest-worker program is clearly absurd, since Democrats will always outbid the Republicans. Indeed, if any amnesty bill passes it will almost surely be with more Democratic than Republican votes. To have any force at all, our friends’ argument must be that Republicans can use other issues–low taxes, the war on terror, and all the rest–to court Hispanics, but that they will not get a hearing if they do not welcome the illegal immigrants who are here or millions of legal immigrants to come.

#ad#Thus the Wall Street Journal argues that Gov. Pete Wilson made the Republican party a minority party in California by running against illegal immigration. Wilson was unpopular for most of his first term. In 1994, he campaigned for an initiative to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants. That initiative won handily, and what had appeared to be a tough re-election battle for him turned out to be a cakewalk. The Journal concedes as much, but claims that the campaign left a bitter aftertaste. Yet Wilson left office popular.

It is true that the Republican who tried to succeed him, Dan Lungren, lost big. But Lungren ran away from Wilson’s immigration politics, even supporting bilingual education as the state voted it down. Nor do the numbers suggest that Lungren’s defeat was a result of Wilson’s having enraged Hispanics who then registered to vote. The Republican share of the gubernatorial vote dropped 17 points between 1994 and 1998. The percentage of Hispanics in the electorate did not rise nearly enough to explain that drop. Hispanics were 11.4 percent of California voters in 1994 and 13.9 percent of them in 1998.

The only time Republicans have won statewide in recent years, they have benefited from popular concern about–yes, illegal immigration. George W. Bush’s positions on immigration did not bring him to victory in California in 2000 or 2004. Democrat Gray Davis became unpopular, and Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded him, in part because Davis had allowed illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and Schwarzenegger opposed that policy.

The Weekly Standard editorializes against House Republicans who take a strong line against illegal immigration. It notes that one House Republican has said that politicians who vote to legalize illegals should be branded with a scarlet A for amnesty. Its retort: “Y is for Yahoo.” The substantive arguments can be skipped, the Standard asserts, “since the pro-immigration forces have in fact been winning that debate easily.” (H is for Hauteur.) It argues that legalization is also smart politics.

Its evidence: Those yahoo Republicans have never been in a competitive statewide race, while several Senate Republicans who voted for it have been in such races. The opponents of legalization, in other words, are just conservative voters, who can be written off at low cost. This is a highly selective review of the evidence. It is not surprising that senators tend to have more statewide political experience than members of the House. But the Standard does not provide a complete picture even of the Senate. It notes that John McCain, a supporter of legalization, is from a competitive state. It ignores the fact that Jon Kyl, who voted against the proposal in committee, is from the same state (and is up for re-election this year). No Republican senator is in a more competitive race this year than Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. He has not announced how he is voting, but he has been very skeptical of the White House line on legalization.

Moreover, some of the supporters of legalization are from states that used to be solidly Republican but have now become competitive because of continuous mass immigration. (This includes, to some extent, California. Many conservative voters have left that state over the last 15 years, and the social and economic problems caused by immigration have contributed to their flight.) Red-state Republicans can be forgiven for not wanting to suffer the same fate, even at the risk of being labeled yahoos. The Standard ignores the long-term political impact of all this immigration.

David Brooks, on the other hand, is one of those who argue that this long-term impact will be positive. Social conservatives, in particular, should be delighted to have them. “The immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic. . . . This is evident in everything from divorce rates (which are low, given immigrants’ socioeconomic status) to their fertility rates (which are high).” Hispanic immigrants, both individually and collectively, are of course a mixture of strengths and flaws, as are the rest of us. Brooks is so determined to emphasize the strengths that he has uncharacteristically lapsed into propaganda. Someone looking at the exact same data but determined to emphasize the negative would say: The immigrants have high divorce rates because they are poor, and they also have a lot of illegitimate children. If our mirror image of Brooks looked at other data, he might also bring up the fact that “the immigrants” have been a booster shot for the crime statistics.

President Bush has so far done an admirable job of increasing the Republican share of the Hispanic vote. But until Republicans have shown that they can get a majority of that vote, the influx of additional Hispanic-immigrant voters puts them further behind in national elections. Republicans should of course court Hispanics who are already here and eligible to vote. But which Hispanics, and under what conditions?

The Hispanics who are most likely to be attracted to the Republican party are those who share Republican ideas about taxes, self-reliance, and moral issues–and who are not inclined to evaluate politics primarily from the standpoint of the interests of their ethnic group. They are also more likely to vote Republican the more they have assimilated. Adding more than a million new Hispanic immigrants to their neighborhoods every year will not help.

Let’s say that our pro-legalization friends are right to say that it is imperative for Republicans to appease Hispanic voters by promising to legalize their illegal cousins. Won’t their remaining positions still run the risk of alienating a now much larger group of Hispanic voters? Critics are already attacking the temporary guest-worker program from the left. They say that Republicans want immigrants’ cheap labor but not their citizenship. (It is a fair critique.) They want the guest-worker program to be scrapped in favor of, or to evolve into, a straightforward increase in legal immigration. If they resist, and stick with the McCain/White House line, won’t the Republicans be painted as anti-Hispanic? And if they give in, won’t they be painted as anti-Hispanic for continuing to resist the expansion of federal programs to help these new workers?

Let’s also not forget that in courting Hispanics, Republicans are generally best off sticking to issues that do not alienate everybody else. The polls on amnesty and on a guest-worker program suggest that most people dislike them (with the exception of a few polls that appear to have been painstakingly crafted to yield a counterintuitive result).

President Bush has rightly called for civility in the immigration debate. It is a notoriously emotional issue. There is no shortage of hotheads who will call one side of the debate racist, or the other side treasonous. Too many opponents of illegal immigration have failed to convey any sympathy for the human plight of the illegal immigrants themselves. Our friends on the other side of the debate are quite right to suggest that intemperate anti-immigration rhetoric may carry a political cost, as well as being wrong in itself.

But something about this debate has made otherwise levelheaded people a little frenzied. People who are skeptical of the Bush/McCain approach have been called “pseudo-conservatives” (the Journal) and “faux conservatives” (George Will) as well as yahoos. We think that the supporters of that approach are conservatives who are making a good-faith mistake about what will best serve our national interest. If they can’t come up with better arguments, can they at least lay off the name-calling?

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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