Politics & Policy

A Populist Republican Immigration Agenda

The GOP should champion the interests of immigrants and the working class.

With Congress searching for a consensus approach to immigration, Republicans have a chance to seize the initiative. They can adopt a set of policies that would be pro-immigrant, pro-working-class, pro-immigration-enforcement, and pro-citizenship. But to improve the politics of immigration, Republicans will have to abandon the self-defeating strategies adopted by the party’s various factions.

One such self-defeating strategy is the John McCain approach, as seen in the Gang of Eight immigration deal. Under that plan, amnesty would come before border security and internal enforcement. In a special absurdity, even certain illegal immigrants who had been deported would be eligible for an “amnesty” that would allow them to return to the United States. The McCain approach would create a low-skill “guest worker” program despite the high unemployment rate among the least-educated tranche of the U.S. labor force. This is also a fraction of the labor force that has been seeing its wages (and family stability and labor-force participation) decline for 30 years. Illegal immigrants receiving amnesty would face a 13-year path to citizenship.

So many problems . . . The combination of amnesty with indefinitely delayed internal enforcement would spur a new round of illegal immigration. Increasing the number of low-skill guest workers without much negotiating power would tend to (modestly) reduce the wages of those American citizens and non-citizen residents who already face high unemployment and declining earnings. The combination of a long path to citizenship, a guest-worker program, and continuing illegal immigration would increase the number of U.S. residents who are not eligible for citizenship.

Some Republicans see this as a bonus. Senator John Cornyn would expand the guest-worker program. A Republican immigration proposal in the House of Representatives includes a 15-year path to citizenship. Maximizing the number of U.S. residents who are not eligible for citizenship might benefit employers who want workers with little leverage in the labor market; it might also seem to benefit Republicans who want to please employer interests without expanding the immigrant electorate in the near-term. But a large and ever-expanding class of American residents ineligible for American citizenship is bad for American citizenship. These noncitizens whom we allow to stay in the United States will live and work alongside us. Their children who are born in our country will be American citizens and go to our schools. Whatever the short-term interests of the business lobbies and the perceived interests of Republican politicians, it is in the American interest that those we allow to live here become American citizens living in the mainstream of American life.

The alternative approach, favored by Tom Tancredo, opposes any amnesty or path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The Tancredo approach would depend on a combination of employer sanctions and local police enforcement to encourage most illegal immigrants to “self deport.” This approach is complicated by public sympathy for illegal immigrants and public support for amnesty and a path to citizenship. That support is highly conditional, though: A majority of the public favors some kind of amnesty if the government makes a prior commitment to immigration enforcement. But it remains unlikely that public opinion can be mobilized in behalf of a policy that treats self-deportation as the only strategy to deal with the existing population of illegal immigrants.

The Republican National Committee’s post-2012 autopsy called for comprehensive immigration reform as a necessary step to increase support for Republicans within the growing Hispanic electorate. The McCain-Cornyn and Tancredo approaches fail by that standard. The Tancredo approach obviously fails, as it makes no room for illegal immigrants who have long resided in the U.S. and put down roots here. The McCain-Cornyn approach fails in that it offers amnesty without integration, treating illegal immigrants and guest workers as units of labor. They can live and work here, but not vote (or they will be able to vote much later on). The McCain-Cornyn approach would also drive down (and seek to keep down) the wages of the lowest-earning American residents and citizens. Underneath all the rhetoric about “welcoming,” the McCain-Cornyn approach to guest workers and illegal immigrants is: “We want you to stay and work here for as little as possible and we want you to vote either much later or never.” That isn’t welcoming.

The Republicans have an opportunity to adopt a better strategy. First, Republicans should support a limited amnesty (open only to longtime U.S. residents) upon the implementation of stronger border security and (especially) internal enforcement through E-Verify. As E-Verify comes online for all workers and the border tightens, the government could begin processing amnesty applications. The public supports amnesty, but on the condition that the government controls immigration flows. The McCain-Cornyn approach is a fraud when it comes to enforcement. The Tancredo approach forecloses any hope of amnesty. An enforcement mandate followed by a limited amnesty better aligns with the public’s sense of justice in this case.

Second, Republicans should support a Canadian-style system for future immigrants, which rewards high-skilled workers and those proficient in English. Low-skill immigration should be restricted for the sake of current low-skill Americans and residents (including those low-skill workers who will be getting amnesty). We should not be expanding our labor markets in exactly those sectors where unemployment is highest.

Americans across the partisan and ideological spectrum prefer going to a system based on skills and language proficiency. It should not be too hard for Republicans to adopt a strategy that is both good policy and good politics. The Conservative party of Canada has shown that a center-right party can favor skills- and language-proficiency-based immigration reform while increasing its share of the vote among immigrant and second-generation voters.

Third, Republicans should be pro-immigrant in the sense of supporting the immigrants who are already here. Republicans can’t be authentically pro-immigrant if they are trying to maximize the time before immigrants become U.S. citizens. If Republicans really want to seem welcoming, they have to be welcoming. The families of immigrants — including those who would get amnesty — should be integrated as full members of the American polity rather than kept as resented guests or mere units of labor.

Finally, it is not enough for Republicans to champion the interests of the working class only when it comes to immigration policy. If they want to make inroads among recent immigrants and secure strong turnout from working-class whites, they need an economic agenda that would benefit the middle and lower-middle classes. A tax policy that increases the take-home pay of middle-class working parents would be welcoming to those groups. A market-oriented health-care reform that protected working families from catastrophic health-care costs would be welcoming to them.

The Republican party is missing an opportunity to adopt a set of policies that are already popular, that would improve immigration policy and national cohesion, and that would benefit those working families that are in greatest economic distress.

Republicans just need to recognize that there is no contradiction between being for immigration enforcement and supporting a limited amnesty, and that there is no conflict between being pro-immigrant and pro-working-class and shifting to a skills- and language-proficiency-based immigration system.

— Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.


The Latest