Republicans have an opportunity on immigration, if only they will seize it. The Democrats are positioning themselves to the left of public opinion. Howard Dean denounces Republicans for using “outrageous phrases like ‘illegal aliens.’” Hillary Clinton ties herself in knots for days over granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, almost everyone in public life favors — or, at any rate, feels compelled to claim to favor — tougher enforcement measures.
Yet Republicans are blowing the opportunity. They are engaged in petty backbiting over one another’s records. Since very few politicians have good ones on this issue, that’s a strategy of mutual assured destruction. It also obscures the choices we face now. Worse, the Republicans are picking on secondary or even tertiary issues. Gov. Mike Huckabee has taken a lot of criticism from the other presidential candidates, for example, for allowing the high-achieving children of illegal immigrants to receive favorable tuition rates at colleges and universities. It is the sort of question that would not even arise in a country that was serious about controlling its borders. A politician’s position on the narrow question is important only insofar as it bears on what he or she would do about the broader one.
Even more beside the point has been the spectacle of Mitt Romney’s attacking Rudy Giuliani for letting illegal immigrants in New York City talk to police without fear of being deported, or Giuliani’s counterattack on Romney for employing a lawn-care company that hired illegals. A sensible federal policy would not place cities in the position of choosing between solving murders and turning a blind eye to illegality. It would also not place the onus of law enforcement on individual consumers.
The important divide concerns what we should do now. John McCain and Giuliani would step up enforcement, create a guest-worker program to meet employers’ desire for immigrant labor, and allow illegal immigrants already here to become citizens if they meet certain conditions (such as learning English). We think that policy mix is a mistake. There is no pressing national need to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows,” and the possibility that we will do so will only serve as a magnet for more illegal immigration. Moreover, immigrants would succeed, and assimilate, faster, with less friction from the native-born, if we took in fewer immigrants each year. Neither candidate takes any notice of this point.
Huckabee’s campaign has outlined a pretty strong proposal — taken largely from the pages of National Review – to enforce the immigration laws, but the candidate himself has seemed ambivalent about it in public forums. Romney has said he opposes amnesty and favors increased enforcement, but has not been forthcoming about his overall approach to immigration policy. Thompson, finally, has argued that we should follow a policy of attrition: If we step up enforcement, we can shrink the illegal population over time without having to deport millions of people all at once.
We would like to see more of the candidates pick up Thompson’s banner, and wave it about with a bit more vigor than he has done. They should also explain that they will make it a priority to deport illegal immigrants who commit violent felonies. (Most people will be outraged to hear that we have not made it a priority already.)
Republicans should by all means remain open to immigrants of every hue. It would not be untoward for them even to express sympathy for people trapped in kleptocracies that crush their dreams and drive them to seek a better life elsewhere. But they should make no apologies for wanting a successful and sustainable immigration policy, and that requires both setting and enforcing limits. It requires that we keep up the pressure on Congress to build a fence at our southern border, and on the administration to penalize scofflaw employers.
And it requires one more thing, which may be the hardest of all to find: Republicans who are smart enough to see an opportunity and bold enough to take it.