Politics & Policy

Immigration and the GOP

Choosing an unhyphenated American identity

Last week saw two contrasting events concerning the significance of the immigration issue in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election.

The first event was the inaugural meeting of the Billionaires for Open Borders (BOB) campaign at New York’s Union League Club. Several members present (including, alas, the great Rupert Murdoch) reportedly urged Mitt Romney to soften his immigration policy in order to win more Hispanic votes.

Romney seems to have resisted this pressure on the grounds that he would lose more votes than he gained by “flip-flopping” on the issue. (He would lose something in personal reputation, too.) He might have added that his current policy is already a reasonable, indeed generous, compromise because it balances opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants with policies for expanding legal immigration and giving skilled immigration priority over the endless “chain migration” of extended families.

The second event was the upset victory, 57 to 43 percent, of the Tea Party–backed outsider, Ted Cruz, over a strong establishment GOP candidate in Texas’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

In addition to a focus on jobs, Mr. Cruz’s campaign positions included support for traditional marriage, the defense of U.S. sovereignty against global governance, and, not least, an ambitious program of reforms (protecting the border, ending chain migration, reducing overall numbers) to ensure that immigration serves the national interest rather than sectional interests, whether economic or ethnic. Cruz is even listed as a “true reformer” on the NumbersUSA website because his reforms are as “comprehensive” as President Obama’s or John McCain’s but point in a different direction.

At first glance, these two events reveal yet again the GOP’s longstanding difficulty with immigration as a political issue: Its donors want open borders, and its voters want higher fences. But there are deeper lessons, too, and they revolve around the question: What kind of issue is immigration?

Immigration is usually listed as a “social issue” when the pollsters and commentators get around to classifying it. This then marks immigration as something mainly of concern to “the religious Right,” which in turn indicates to many centrist voters that immigration can therefore be of no interest to them. 

The phrase “social issues” is, however, a misnomer. As used in American politics for the last 30 years, this phrase refers to issues such as abortion, gay rights (now including same-sex marriage), school prayer, pornography, gender equality and sex roles, and capital punishment. What links these issues is that they are intertwined with morality and religion. Capital punishment is on the list, for instance, whereas crime in general is not, because of the high moral significance of taking a human life. So it would make better sense to call these matters “moral issues” and to exclude immigration from the list.

Insofar as immigration is a moral issue — and morality is a component of almost every political issue — it divides the religious Right exactly as it divides all Americans and almost all groups of Americans. Its grassroots members favor less immigration, and its leadership (in both the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism) wants more immigration with fewer restrictions. So immigration is not a “social issue” as usually understood, and it’s not generally favored by the “religious Right,” either.

It might perhaps be classified as a “social-fabric issue” alongside, say, crime and family breakdown. The case for such a classification has been reluctantly advanced by the distinguished Harvard social scientist Robert D. Putnam, who concluded, following a rigorous study, that “diversity” erodes trust both within and among ethnic groups. That in turn leads to such results as less willingness to volunteer, lower involvement in community projects, less confidence in local institutions, less giving to charity, but more involvement in politics and social protest and more time spent watching television.

In short, immigration, by increasing diversity, slowly frays the social fabric. It helps to transform a society rooted in local social cooperation into one organized around political conflict over larger regional or national outcomes from which many people simply opt out into apathy. 

Both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party might be cited as examples of the social-protest movements that are spawned by diversity. But there is protest and there is protest. OWS is the reductio ad absurdum of social distrust and political conflict, whereas the Tea Party seeks to restore a Tocquevillian America of social cooperation at the local level. That’s why the Tea Party is particularly keen to restore fiscal and constitutional restraints on the federal government — a necessary step to reviving Tocqueville’s America. 

Far from coincidentally, immigration is also a constitutional issue — and not simply because the Obama administration is exceeding its constitutional limits in seeking to prevent the states from enforcing those federal immigration laws it dislikes. Who belongs to the polity is a fundamental question for a nation-state. Allowing millions of people to live and work illegally in the U.S. — and to draw social benefits and use public services — erodes the distinction between citizens and non-citizens and dilutes the value of U.S. citizenship. It weakens the collective bonds of nationhood, and, in general, it aggravates the negative aspects of diversity. 

Immigration is also a fiscal issue. As many studies have shown, the net fiscal impact of legal and illegal immigrants on federal and state budgets is negative. This is not because immigrants don’t work (they do). Nor because they don’t pay taxes (they do). But on average they have significantly lower levels of education than native-born Americans, earn less as a result, pay less in taxes, and receive more from various social programs.

Billionaires for Open Borders tends to discount these fiscal costs as modest compared to the larger economic gains from immigration. Well, there is something in that, but not much. Almost all the economic gains of immigration go to the migrants themselves. The net gain to native-born Americans is very modest, and most of it goes to employers and owners of capital; lower-paid Americans actually lose income or jobs, sometimes both. The net effect is to increase income inequality. Still, one can see that business owners might not notice all the flaws in a system of mass immigration that gives them the advantages of cheap labor and imposes its social and fiscal costs on taxpayers across the board.

All the same, there is a hidden problem down the road for BOB — and for Republicans. Mass immigration of unskilled workers increases the constituencies in favor of higher government spending on social programs, higher taxation, and greater legal protection for labor unions. See California, passim. The late James Chapin, UPI’s distinguished political analyst, pointed out the consequences for a GOP that thought lax immigration control was necessary to win Hispanic votes. “Republicans,” he said, “can either change their policy on immigration or change their policies on everything else.” Billionaires might want to ponder the same point as it affects their interests.

But, gentlemen, be of good cheer. Such dire results are the results not of immigration as such but of our current confused, irrational, and accidental immigration policy. A policy that reduced overall immigrant numbers but admitted more highly skilled immigrants, restricted family reunification to the nuclear family, and encouraged illegal immigrants to “self-deport” by such measures as E-Verify would go a long way toward meeting the legitimate aims of corporate America, reducing or even reversing the fiscal deficit, and improving the economic prospects of lower-income native-born Americans.

Would it also repair the damage done by “diversity” to the social fabric? And if so, how? We know the answer to the second of these questions from American history. Until the 1960s, immigrants were themselves converted into Tocquevillian Americans by the process called assimilation — or, more candidly, “Americanization.” This process was not all flags, brass bands, and street parties. It had its painful side. Norman Podhoretz has described it as a “brutal bargain” in which the immigrant surrendered some of his ancestral customs and loyalties (but not, significantly, his religion) in return for becoming an American in a full sense.

Not all ethnic groups became Americans quickly. Michael Novak’s Eastern European “unmeltable ethnics” melted only from the early Seventies onward — not long after the publication of his book on them in 1972. As Novak points out, however, in a 2006 essay revisiting his earlier thesis, these immigrants’ entry into the American majority required not only the majority’s willingness to welcome them but also the willingness of some ethnic leaders to lead them to the foundry. Without far-sighted and unsentimental leadership on both sides, the newcomers might have remained outsiders for many more years. The actual moment of their full absorption into the American majority was when they became “Reagan Democrats” in 1980. That did not necessarily mean they became Republicans. It meant that they no longer felt obliged to vote Democratic but were free to cast their votes on grounds of policy or principle rather than ethnic loyalty.

America’s Hispanics may now be on the brink of a similar moment. Until now, the Democrats have had the great majority of Hispanics in their camp, but as a distinct ethnic group with its own interests and loyalties rather than simply as Americans. Modern Democrats see their party as a coalition of minorities whose cement is ethnic loyalty. Even Bill Clinton, let alone Obama, was quite prepared to stir up ethnic loyalties, indeed ethnic antagonisms, in order to shore up the Democratic coalition.

Republicans by contrast have never quite known how to appeal to Hispanic voters. They have gloomily assumed that appealing to them simply as Americans would get the party nowhere. As for appeals to ethnic solidarity, the Democrats could always outbid them on that. So they tried defensive assurances, insisting that the GOP wouldn’t really be very different from the Democrats on issues such as immigration, quotas, and bilingualism — which undercut and demoralized those Hispanics who had made the leap into a full and unqualified American identity and wanted to be so treated.

Maybe nothing could really be done until some younger people from this Hispanic minority emerged onto the political stage and seized leadership roles for themselves. Marco Rubio and Miguel Estrada have already done so in politics and the law, respectively; with the primary victory of Ted Cruz, Hispanic GOP leadership is becoming a trend. And what makes Cruz so interesting — and to the mainstream media, so alarmingly inexplicable — is that he makes no concessions to the usual etiquette of either class or ethnic politics.

Cruz is a Hispanic politician, the son of a Cuban immigrant, and he is proud of that and of his parents. But his political appeal owes very little to his Cuban ethnicity. His is essentially an American appeal that, significantly again, speaks to all ethnic groups in Texas.

Cruz is also an “establishment man” from a social and educational standpoint. He is an Ivy League–educated lawyer who was law clerk to Chief Justice Rehnquist and who has pleaded nine cases before the Supreme Court (winning five). But his political identity is rooted in the grassroots insurgency of the Tea Party; and the political causes he supports, both in politics and in his legal career, belong squarely in the conservative camp.

Most interesting, among the causes he has embraced, as we saw above, is conservative reform of immigration, as if to say, “Hispanics should judge this matter not as a hot-button single issue for Hispanics but as a matter of national interest for all Americans.” There are risks in this approach. The Democrats will cry disloyalty, and some Hispanics (including some conservatives) will not want to weaken their sense of separateness. But it could lead to a moment like the revolution of Reagan Democrats.

If Cruz wins in November in a state with a large number of Hispanic voters, as seems likely, he will establish himself as the natural leader of the most natural Republican constituency among U.S. Hispanics, namely those who want to follow (or who have already followed) the Italians, the Irish, and the Poles into an unhyphenated American national identity. And that would threaten the Democrats like nothing else.

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

Most Popular