Politics & Policy

On Immigration, Santorum Adds Substance

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Some presidential candidates, such as Donald Trump, are newcomers to the anti-illegal-immigration cause; but Rick Santorum has been there all along, building a demonstrable record against amnesty. So when Santorum released a new proposal for immigration policy on August 20, he merited more attention than he received.

On just about any subject, Santorum provides an unusually forthcoming interview — and so he proved when I caught up with him on Friday.

“My plan is different because it puts the American worker first,” Santorum said. He explained:

There really isn’t anybody out there with a plan that looks at how our entire immigration system disadvantages those who are hurting the most in our country — the people who want to work and are finding it harder to find jobs and have to take less because of competition [from immigrants]. If you look at wages in the last 25 years, the average increase has been about a nickel per year per hour. It’s anemic. So one of the things I talk about is, it’s important not just to look at illegal immigration, but legal immigration, which has brought in over a million people a year in this country. You have to look at both, because both have an impact on people’s ability to find work.

Toward that end, Santorum proposes ending “chain migration” (quick admission for non-nuclear family members of current immigrants) and the visa lottery, along with some new limits on H-1B (skilled labor) visas — steps he says will result in a 25 percent cut in the number of legal immigrants. On top of the by-now familiar steps to curtail illegals — new walls, new border technology, more agents at the border — the cut in legal immigrants, he says, should provide significantly better opportunities to American workers.

RELATED: We Can Apply the 14th Amendment While Also Reforming Birthright Citizenship

Then, though, after so much tough talk against immigrants, Santorum does a surprising pivot. For six job classifications — of more than 400 listed by the Department of Commerce — Santorum actually would provide a way for illegals to become temporarily legal (by paying a fine and making other amends), to do jobs that, yes, “maybe people born here really do not want to do.”

What is this: Is Santorum going soft?

Hardly.

He explained:

These are job classifications where the actual majority of the workers are not native-born. This category is composed of less than 1 percent of all workers. These are important for meat-packing and agriculture. So what I’ve said is, in that situation, where we clearly have a need for immigrant workers — administered through the Department of Agriculture, not Labor, because Labor is horrific — they could get a temporary guest-worker permit, annually renewed. And every three to five years, if they want to renew, they would have to go back to the native country and come in again as long as they comply with the law. This would be a small group of folks who would be able to stay in this country and be legalized on a temporary basis. We have to provide some mechanism for agriculture to get their crops out of the fields.

Now this is interesting. Whether one agrees with the proposal or not, it is a sign of a candidate who doesn’t pander. Indeed, this is a candidate willing to take political risks for practical policies — policies based on actual facts and actual needs.

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Santorum must know, in this political soundbite culture, that allowing one category of illegal alien to find leniency might muddy his “tough on immigration” message. So be it. If he thinks it’s good policy for the American economy, he’ll take a stand. He’s always been like that — and this proclivity should be seen not as a failing, but as a sign of character and leadership.

While the other candidates beat each other up, he’ll keep plugging away.

Immigration isn’t the only issue, by the way, where Santorum is likely to make waves. Soon to be released, he told me, are the details of a new proposal for sweeping tax reform.

Santorum calls it the “20-20, Perfect Vision for America” plan. It features a 20 percent flat tax on corporate profits — with all corporate spending expensed immediately, with no depreciation or amortization — and a 20 percent, absolutely flat income tax, with high personal exemptions and deductions only for home-mortgage interest and charitable donations, and “maybe some health-care things in there, too.” (On the latter, it should be noted that Santorum was the primary early sponsor, nearly a quarter century ago, of health savings accounts.)

Santorum says that, scored “dynamically” (in other words, including calculations for economic growth), his proposal will be revenue-neutral over a ten-year window — “or better.” More details, he said, will be coming soon.

#related#All of which makes Santorum, again, a candidate of more substance than sizzle. And that’s fine with him. While the other candidates beat each other up, he’ll keep plugging away, just as he did four years ago when he came from way back in the pack to within about 15,000 Michiagan votes of knocking Mitt Romney from the race.

“Our strategy,” Santorum said, “is just to keep our heads down, build our base, get attention when it is owed. We differentiate ourselves from other people. You plant that seed in people’s minds. You just plant these seeds, and hope they sprout at the right time.”

One thing is certain: At the hard work of tilling political soil — and of productive policymaking — Rick Santorum is no alien.

— Quin Hillyer is a longtime contributor to National Review Online.

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