Politics & Policy

Stop Caving on Immigration, 2016 Contenders

Ted Cruz has stood strong on enforcement. (Erich Schlegel/Getty)

The Republican presidential field is united in its opposition to President Obama’s executive amnesty, and also united in a lazy consensus on immigration policy.

The range of opinion among prospective GOP candidates is astonishingly narrow, and the proposed measures unsatisfactory. Jeb Bush has been loudly criticized for encouraging legal status, and in some cases even citizenship, for illegal immigrants. But Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal have endorsed the same view, while Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have embraced offering legal status, if not citizenship. Scott Walker has made Bush-like statements as recently as 2013. Additionally, Republican candidates are basically unanimous in their support for a guest-worker program and higher levels of legal immigration.

There is no political need for such uniformity. A recent Gallup poll showed that 39 percent of Americans want less immigration, while only 7 percent want more. Republican candidates have thoughtlessly and needlessly associated themselves with a view that has very little public support.

They would do well to emphasize the need for enforcement first. Ted Cruz, to his credit, has done this, and Scott Walker is moving in that direction. “First and foremost, you’ve got to secure that border, or none of these plans make sense,” Walker said on Fox News Sunday last weekend, noting that he has made opposition to amnesty “a firm position” because of “the way this president has handled the issue.” At CPAC, Marco Rubio enunciated an enforcement-first position. Bush may be migrating rightward as well. He declared at CPAC that “enforc[ing] borders for national-security purposes, public-health purposes, and the rule of law” should be our “first and foremost” priority.

These are promising developments. But enforcement of immigration laws must go beyond the border. It has to include a system to prevent visa over-stayers, and a way of enforcing immigration laws at the point of employment. As long as employers can hire illegal immigrants easily and with few repercussions if caught, immigrants who are uninterested in enduring the slog of our legal immigration system have a strong incentive to enter the country illegally. Candidates cannot neglect these other crucial components of enforcement — or the need, in pursuing them, to rebuild the relationships between state and local authorities and immigration officials that have been strained under the current administration.

Successfully enforcing existing laws would enable the Congress and a willing administration to turn their attention to the problem of illegal immigrants who have lived here long enough to become embedded in their communities. Our first priority is to build a working system for enforcement that ensures amnesty won’t become a magnet for new illegal immigration. Once that is in place, the legalization of some portion of the illegal population in exchange for reforms in the legal immigration system — including a reduction in levels — becomes possible.

For some time, a political elite out of step with the general public has cudgeled Republicans with cries of racism and nativism when they have sought to oppose permissive immigration policies. And Republican business interests always favor an ever-growing supply of low-skilled labor. But more restrictive immigration policies, combined with actual border security and the enforcement of America’s immigration laws, would be much better for the economic and social health of the country in the long term. It would aid in assimilation, foreclose the creation of a new illegal-immigrant problem, and avoid suppressing wages of low-skilled workers, among other things.

Republicans need to be willing (and able) to articulate such policies — among one another, and then to the broader electorate.

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