Republicans are terribly confused over illegal immigration. They still can’t quite figure out its role in the last election.
Did the issue lose them the Latino vote? Maybe — but why did they also forfeit the Asian vote, and by nearly the same margin? Why did the caricature of Republicans as old white nativists resonate with Asians as well? If support for closing the border and refusing amnesty lost Republicans the election, why do a majority of Americans continue to poll in opposition to any sort of collective amnesty?
And why, in some polls, did Latinos seem more concerned about continuing big-government readiness to help the poor and tax the wealthy than about immigration reform? Alan Simpson and Ronald Reagan, who helped to give us the 1986 amnesty, are not heroes to the Latino community. Is there statistical support for the often-repeated axiom that Latinos, as a group, are more likely than members of the so-called majority culture to embrace traditional family values — lower divorce rates, lower rates of illegitimacy, lower crime rates, higher graduation rates?
Of course, kinder, gentler talk — unlike the buffoonery that was heard in some of last year’s sloppy Republican primary debates — would have helped. Yet in 2008 circumspection and prudence did not aid all that much the moderate John McCain, who in the past had championed a sort of amnesty lite. And all the silly and often gratuitous braggadocio about upping the height of the border wall or electrifying it was more than trumped by the crass pandering of Barack Obama, who called on Latinos to “punish our enemies”; joined with a foreign nation, Mexico, to sue one of his own states, Arizona; and claimed his opponents wanted to arrest children on their way to ice-cream parlors. Note there is no national commentary deploring the fact that the president of the United States engaged in just the sort of crass ethnic showmanship that characterized the Republican debates. Apparently, because his pandering worked and the Republicans’ did not, under the laws of politics only the latter was pandering.
Confused by questions like these, Republicans don’t quite know what to do about the 11 to 15 million illegal aliens in our midst, with more to come in future years. And in lieu of wisdom, principles, and consistency, Republican are mostly experimenting, trying to square the circle and win the Latino vote with clichés about conservative values and a vaguely familiar message of amnesty for those already here predicated on no additional illegal immigration. But the problem can be only reduced, not solved, by kinder, gentler language and outreach to Latino groups, for in the end it is an existential issue well beyond trimming.
In truth, illegal immigration is illiberal to the core, based on reducing the legal applicant to a formalistic naïf, making a mockery of the law, undermining the American poor, enabling the worst policies of the Mexican government, and aiding the American well-off. True, it was mostly conservative employers and mostly liberal partisans, hand in glove, who have created the problem in the last 30 years — the one wanting cheap non-union labor, the latter wanting future dependents and constituents. But that said, there are now forces in play that ensure that the status quo is antithetical to everything the Republican party claims it stands for.
Republicans profess that they favor a meritocracy and a nation that looks at the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. But contemporary illegal immigration is not a theoretical issue about federal law. Rather, in terms of particular immigrant groups, it is largely of concern to Latin Americans, who want more Latin Americans to enter the United States, preferably legally but, if not, then illegally. This is largely for reasons of ethnic solidarity, never mind that it interferes with integration and assimilation. If it is a question of keeping the present system of massive influxes of illegal aliens, periodically remedied by amnesties of the 1986 sort, versus an entirely legal system that privileges education and skill sets, and therefore might well result in true diversity, with tens of thousands of Asians, Africans, and Europeans entering legally, rather than mostly a monolithic influx of Latin Americans entering illegally, then I fear most activists would prefer the present non-system.
In other words, if the southern border were closed, and only legal immigration were permitted, predicated on criteria other than ethnic profile, proximity, pseudo-historical claims on the American Southwest, and family ties, then Republicans would still lose the Latino vote, at least for the short term.
The situation is probably even worse than that for Republican immigration idealists. As they are learning in their disastrous cobra dance with the administration, Barack Obama and his activist supporters define “comprehensive immigration reform” quite differently from the way most Republicans would. If the latter are willing to concede de facto green-card status, with the much ballyhooed “pathway to citizenship,” to foreign nationals who have long resided here, are not on public assistance, and do not have criminal records — in exchange for closing the border, crafting a meritocratic legal-immigration system, and imposing fines on employers who hire illegals — the Democrats most probably would not be on board.
In a word, too many illegal aliens are recent arrivals and would not benefit from this scheme. Too many thousands are on public assistance. And too many thousands have criminal records. That these latter groups are, of course, a minority amid a much larger hard-working majority matters little to liberals. It is not so much that they are for amnesty for most, as that they are against deportation for some — a group that in aggregate could be in the hundreds of thousands. Watch the eroding negotiations, as Obama casts his alluring bait, hooks his Republican fish, and then yanks them around on requisite border enforcement, prior arrests and convictions, and the unemployed on public assistance. For demagogic purposes, there is only a Dream Act, not a non-Dream Act; all are eligible for citizenship, almost none for deportation; only future brain surgeons crossed the border illegally, not those who sometimes commit felonies or drive while intoxicated.
For the political liberal, the children of illegal aliens vote solidly Democratic and will be expected to do so in bloc fashion for the future. For the cultural liberal, everything from Chicano Studies Departments and La Raza to affirmative action, setasides, and cultural chauvinism are predicated on massive influxes of foreign nationals that take two or even three generations to assimilate fully and so skew statistical surveys of the status of the resident Latino community. The old melting pot is derided in elite ethnic circles as much as the bankrupt model of the salad bowl is praised.
Without illegal immigration, Latinos eventually would become something akin, for example, to the mostly middle-class Italian-American community (does it have a lobbying group known as La Razza?) — politically balanced, without tribal appendages in the media and academia, with a young person named Lopez no different from one named Pirelli, ethnicity becoming merely incidental rather than essential to his persona.
What then should be the Republican position?
First, in the short term, insist on civil speech, and refer to illegally residing foreign nationals with respect and dignity — and yet also without the fawning and transparent obsequiousness that earn contempt rather than respect. Make the argument that the present state of entitlements is unsustainable and that conservative approaches to the economy and the popular culture are more in tune with immigrants’ longer-term aspirations. And then hope for charismatic, high-profile national leaders like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who, for largely emotional reasons, might be able to help peel off maybe 40 percent of the so-called Latino vote.
All that said, Latinos will not break for Republicans, or even split 50/50, until ethnicity becomes a secondary issue. That evolution will take more than civility, courtesy, and sympathetic Latino spokesmen. It will demand years of melting-pot principles instead of tribal pandering. Some of these principles are:
1. There must be a closed and enforceable border that eliminates all illegal entry. That reality must precede, not follow or be simultaneous with, pathways granted to citizenship.
2. Green-card residence could be offered to those who initially broke our immigration law — but only with carefully crafted prerequisites, including substantial residency in the U.S., a clean criminal record, and proof of employment and independence from public assistance. For those who qualify, the green card should be forthcoming; for those who do not, the road should lead back to one’s country of origin.
3. An eventual pathway to citizenship for the qualified green-card holder should hinge on acquisition of proficiency in English and other traditional citizenship tests, presumably satisfied as the resident applicant waits behind those legal applicants whom he cut in front of in illegal fashion when he first came here.
4. We should insist on an ethnically blind legal-immigration system focusing on granting citizenship on the basis on education and skills — and not prejudiced on the basis of national origin.
Sticking to these principles would probably mean that the Republicans would at best capture no more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in the next few elections. But the reform offers the best hope that Latinos, like most other ethnic groups, would eventually become indifferent to immigration policy, politically ambiguous, and more likely to vote for the candidate on the basis of his positions and his character, and not the nature of his ethnic agenda.
For those very reasons, expect the president and his immigration supporters to praise these principles in the abstract and oppose them bitterly in the concrete. Their purpose is not to institute comprehensive immigration reform, but to demand amnesty, to renege on its prerequisites, to blame Republicans for the failure of compromise, to demagogue the issue in the next election, and to rest content with the continuance of the present non-system that has so greatly benefited both professional ethnics and Democratic operatives.