Politics & Policy

The Immigrant Song

Conservatives can start singing it to the entire country again.

They crossed the border. By the millions, they crossed a desert, often at the hands of smugglers known as “coyotes,” seeking work. Seeking manual labor, mostly — seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Until they stopped coming.

The workers in Mexico got the message. They didn’t need the Wall Street Journal to tell them the Obama economy was a shambles. They stopped coming because the work dried up.

Roughly 6.1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants were living in the U.S. last year, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center study. You’d think a drop-off like that would have hurt the Obama administration and Democrats with Hispanic voters, but Obama won their vote with a record 71 percent.

He won it because a contingent of conservatives created the impression that they thought those workers were a threat to our country, coming here for government handouts. But they were coming here for the same reason immigrants have been coming here legally for centuries: economic opportunity.

Some members of the GOP understood this. President George W. Bush did. He tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform, only to be thwarted by Republicans in Congress. John McCain was a champion of comprehensive immigration reform during much of the last decade — until he wasn’t. McCain faced opposition from illegal-immigration hawk J. D. Hayworth during his 2010 Senate run; fearing a backlash from primary voters, he changed both his tone and his stance on the issue.

And then it was Mitt Romney’s turn to prove his illegal-immigration bona fides. Asked during a GOP debate how he would address the issue, he told the nation he favored “self-deportation.”

How did it come to this? How can the GOP fix its problems with Hispanics — and with immigrants in general, legal and illegal? Romney won only 27 percent of the Asian vote in 2012.

Some will urge the GOP to get behind comprehensive immigration reform. Others will urge H-1B Visa reform. But policy positioning alone won’t make up for the GOP’s messaging ineptitude. Nor will attempts to reverse-engineer the Democrats’ success with more data mining and pandering to individual interest groups. If we learned anything from 2012, it’s that we have little to learn from 2012. Billions of dollars were spent for advice from experts and grassroots gurus, and 13 million fewer Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008.

This much we know: When Mitt Romney went on his 47 percent riff at a fundraiser last spring, he reinforced the all-too-common perception that the GOP is the party of CEOs and the affluent, rather than the party that fights for all Americans — and that wants to create opportunity for all Americans.

Indeed, the GOP is the champion of the opportunity society. It’s the Democrats who have staked their claim on equality of outcome, rather than equal opportunity for all. It’s the Democrats who repeatedly propose government solutions to difficult problems, dispensing funds to favored groups, while the GOP seeks to empower individual choice and the private sector.

That’s a substantive messaging opportunity for conservatives, if only we seize it.

How do we do that? Here’s an idea: Start talking about education a whole lot more, and fairness. Let’s talk about a revolution in education reform that’s waiting to take off if the unions — which pour billions into the Democrats’ coffers in exchange for favorable treatment — get out of the way. Let’s talk about charter schools and online education and the KIPP Academy, and make people such as Geoffrey Canada (founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone) and Michelle Rhee (former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public-school system and founder of StudentsFirst) household names.

Let’s tell a whole lot of stories, too, because we have stories to tell, stories that will stir the conscience of the nation.

Let’s start with a story from the Los Angeles Times in 2010. Reporters there acquired data that the L.A. Unified School District had been assembling for years for internal purposes. The Times reporters focused on one school, Broadous Elementary School, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, and did some number-crunching of their own. Many of the families in that area are Latino, and the majority of the parents never graduate from high school, let alone college.

The reporters learned that the quality of teachers affects educational outcomes, and that it isn’t hard to measure and predict those outcomes — unless you don’t want to. The data for Broadous showed that effective teachers powered student achievement in less than twelve months. “There is a substantial gap at year’s end between students whose teachers ranked in the top 10 percent in effectiveness and the bottom 10 percent,” the Times reported. The paper then went from the statistical macro to the human micro, introducing its readers to two teachers, right down the hall from each other, who teach the same subject to children from the same neighborhood.

One was Miguel Aguilar, a 33-year-old who had grown up in the area. He knew these kids because he was once one of them. When the reporters visited his class, Room 26, they saw engaged students sitting attentively, absorbed in their work. Aguilar refused to indulge in the bigotry of low expectations. He doled out praise sparingly and expected results from his kids. And results he got. Aguilar’s students started the year in the 34th percentile in math compared with all other fifth-graders in the district. They finished in the 61st percentile. That was typical of the gains he routinely turned out, making him one of the most effective teachers in the school.

We then met Joe Smith in Room 25. Under Smith’s instruction, students lost an average of 14 percentage points in math during a school year, relative to their peers, which made Smith the least effective of the school’s teachers. The reporters confronted Smith, something no supervisor in the school district had done. He was surprised. “Obviously, I need to look at what I’m doing and take some steps to make sure something changes,” he told the Times.

“Changes”? How about this change: Shape up, or you’re fired?

Where is the fairness to teachers in paying those two the same salary? And where is the fairness to the children? And in what other line of work in America do we pay people just for showing up and for seniority — with no performance benchmarks? What was the response of union bosses to the exposé? Did they promise to drive out poor teachers like Smith and reward good ones like Aguilar? Heck, no! The leader of the 40,000-strong union called for a boycott of the Los Angeles Times.

Middle- and upper-middle-class parents have options when their kids are trapped in dysfunctional classes. They can get tutors, buy online products, or — if things are dire — send their kids to a private school or move to a neighborhood where the public schools work. Working-poor and poor parents don’t have such options. Getting stuck in a bad class or a bad school is a catastrophe for a child. A year is lost, then another, and soon the student and the parents give up hope.

The GOP should fight for these kids, fight to give them more choices and more opportunity to escape those dysfunctional classrooms and schools — and even neighborhoods.

That’s what a GOP opportunity society could stand for.

The GOP should also talk about family and fatherhood. The out-of-wedlock birth rate is approaching 40 percent in America, which is a crisis that makes the fiscal cliff look like child’s play. And it is women and children who suffer most from this man-made masculinity crisis. Rudy Giuliani and other GOP leaders led the charge to reduce crime and turn around cities at a time when most policymakers seemed fresh out of good ideas. The GOP today can seize the moment and follow their example to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of absent fathers.

The formula for success in America, the way to get to the middle class, has always been the same: Start with a good education, work full time, and get married before having babies. Let’s make sure every child knows that this is the roadmap to upward mobility. Let’s also promote tough penalties for men who don’t pay child support, set stiff sentences for domestic violence, and bring back the idea of embarrassing men who don’t honor their commitments.

Last but not least, the GOP must do its best to promote more immigration, not less. And we should welcome not only the immigrants who bring capital or who have high-tech skills, but also the kind that Emma Lazarus wrote about in her sonnet “The New Colossus,” some lines of which appear on the Statue of Liberty: “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Let’s also work harder to tell the great story of America’s immigrant past. We keep hearing stories that America is about to become a majority-minority nation, but that notion is pure hogwash. It is an invention of the Left, which is doing its best to divide Americans not only by class, but by ethnicity, too.

In an interview with Hugh Hewitt for his 2006 book The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again, Michael Barone corrected the record:

We have long since been a minority nation, if you go by the definitions of a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish immigrants were called different races . . . And people thought they would never blend in, would never be interwoven into the American fabric. Well, now . . . that obviously has been proven false, and now the census just classifies them as white.

Barone, whose ancestors came to America in the early 20th century from Italy, added this:

One of the things I cite in the book is 1912 testimony by an expert on ethnic groups to a committee of the United States Senate, and the Senator says “Is the Italian a white man?” And the expert says “No, sir. He is a Dago.” That was . . . it was a different race. That was a hundred years ago. 

The idea that there is today an Italian vote or an Irish vote is simply preposterous. Italians have married Irish, who have married Mexicans, who have married Brazilians and Asians. We are like a fine gumbo, our heritage so thoroughly mixed up that to identify with each ethnic group as separate is to do battle with yourself.

The future of America is no different as we continue to share and mix ancestry — and all because the ideals of America are still alive. The lure of economic opportunity brings us here. The pull of love shatters the demographers’ imagination and all ethnic barriers.

One member of the huddled masses was an Italian immigrant named Frank Capra. He came to this country when he was six, and he went on to give us such film classics as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and his proudest achievement, his seven-episode masterpiece, Why We Fight, which he made for the War Department during World War II.

In a speech at the American Film Institute in 1982, after receiving its Lifetime Achievement Award, Capra talked about the journey that brought him to America. With vivid detail he recalled the ship that left Italy “crammed with praying immigrants.” He told the story of his dad’s dragging him to the deck when that ship hit the Port of New York and pointing to a glow from a torch that lit the sky.

“That’s the greatest light since the Star of Bethlehem,” his father told the young boy.

“I looked up,” recalled Capra, “and there was the Statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a lamp over the land we were about to enter, and my father said to me: ‘It’s the light of freedom, Chico, freedom. Remember that. Freedom.’”

The next Frank Capra might just be on a boat or a plane heading from Ecuador or El Salvador or Nigeria, seeking that same freedom Capra’s family sought. That yearning to be free is what these immigrants want, not more government controls. Indeed, it is government controls they are fleeing.

Yes, we need to keep talking about jobs and free markets and the size and scale of government, but we need to talk more deeply — and more soulfully — about who we are, we Americans, and how we got here, and why we are fighting for that tradition to continue as new refugees arrive from all over the world, powering us forward.

If we do, the GOP might just find itself in the majority again — inspiring people rather than lecturing them.

And new immigrants, Asians and Hispanics included, will be leading the charge.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan. Mike Leven is the COO and president of the Las Vegas Sands.


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