Politics & Policy

On Immigration, Walker Bucks the Beltway Consensus

(Scott Olson/Getty)
The Republican party should welcome his call for a closer examination of evidence.

Scott Walker’s most recent comments on immigration may make possible an honest-to-God debate about America’s immigration policy. It’s about time.

Chatting with Glenn Beck on Monday morning, Walker said:

The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal-immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages. . . . What is [current legal-immigration policy] doing for American workers? What is this doing to wages? We need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.

But, Walker observed, among elected officials, questioning our current legal-immigration policy is “a fundamentally lost issue.”

And Republicans quickly proved him right. Utah senator Orrin Hatch dismissed as “poppycock” Walker’s insinuation that high levels of legal immigration might have negative effects on employment and wages. Arizona senator John McCain declared that immigrants were necessary to supplement an aging population: “I think most statistics show that they fill part of the workforce that are much needed.” South Dakota senator John Thune, head of the Senate Republican Conference, admitting that he had not heard Walker’s comments exactly, still declared: “We have a workforce issue in this country. . . . So having a robust legal-immigration process helps us fill jobs that otherwise wouldn’t be getting filled.” And Ohio senator Rob Portman retreated to sentiment: “As a party, we’ve always embraced immigrants coming here legally, following the rules. And it’s enriched our country immeasurably.”

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But these are, of course, responses to a straw man — namely, that Scott Walker opposes legal immigration. His campaign has been clear that that is not the case: He “strongly supports legal immigration,” said spokeswoman AshLee Strong, “and like many Americans, believes that our economic situation should be considered, instead of arbitrary caps on the amount of immigrants that can enter.” Walker is simply suggesting that American policymakers consider Americans when making policy.

That is controversial? Apparently, since even leading Republicans refuse to engage Walker’s question.

That refusal should alarm every prospective Republican voter.

First, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that current legal-immigration levels — approximately 1 million new immigrants a year — are not an automatic economic boon. Despite the much-touted link between current immigration levels and increases in income for native-born Americans, it is not at all obvious that those increases could not be achieved by other means, and those gains are partially offset by wage decreases among foreign-born workers, who, predictably, are forced to compete with new immigrants for scarce job opportunities.

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Second, the Beltway political consensus that Walker is bucking is sharply out of step with public opinion. In January, Gallup found that 39 percent of Americans would like to see immigration levels decrease; only 7 percent wanted more immigration. (A staggering 84 percent of Republicans were dissatisfied with current immigration levels.) Last summer, 45 percent of respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos poll called for a reduction in legal immigration, while only 17 percent called for an increase. And in August, asked by the Polling Company how U.S. businesses struggling to find workers should respond, 75 percent of respondents chose “They should raise wages and improve working conditions to attract Americans.” Only 8 percent chose “More immigrant workers should be allowed into the country to fill these jobs.” Notably, the results were equally lopsided across ethnic (including Hispanic) and party lines. Black Americans preferred the first option by a margin of 86 percent to 3 percent.

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#related#That latter finding should debunk MSNBC’s nonsense claim that Walker sees “riling up the party’s older and whiter conservative base as the key to general-election success.” Rather, Walker, more than any Republican candidate, is in step with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which in 2010 reported, “Illegal immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men.” “Competition from immigration accounts for approximately 40 percent of the 18 percentage point decline in black employment in recent years,” commissioner Peter Kirsanow wrote at National Review last fall. “That’s nearly a million jobs lost by blacks to immigrants.” Republicans have long lamented their dismal electoral performance in minority communities. Walker’s position is far more likely to sway these voters — and, more important, help these communities — than the platitude-filled “minority outreach” of Republican campaigns past.

But there is, finally, a question of principle at stake. Is the Republican party a party of ideas, of free and open debate in which the best ideas can win the day? Or is it a party of censorship that requires toeing predetermined lines? Because it is the Left that is notorious for demanding ideological uniformity; it is the Left that ostracizes and excommunicates. Democrats’ marketplace of ideas has always been a command economy — which is why Hillary Clinton’s ideas are from the 1990s, and Barack Obama’s were from the 1930s. But the reaction to Walker’s call for an open debate on legal-immigration policy has been indistinguishable from what one sees on the left. A Republican party that shouts down anyone who calls for a closer examination of the evidence is thoroughly illiberal — or thoroughly liberal, as the case may be.

John Thune, John McCain, et al. presumably do not support open borders, which means the question has to be, Where do we draw the line? Scott Walker wants to ask that question. A healthy party would have the debate, and eagerly.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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