Conservative efforts at health-care reform are, for the moment, a shambles. Conservative efforts at tax reform are foundering as well, though their prospects may be sunnier, given the habitual Republican appetite for tax cuts of almost any description, including irresponsible ones.
Both the tax-reform project and the health-care project have run into trouble because of a lack of intellectual and political leadership: Washington’s sock drawers are stuffed full of conservative proposals to rationalize taxes and to nudge health care in a more market-oriented direction, but herding those congressional cats — and conservative activists, think-tankers, PACs and super PACs, aspiring presidents, etc. — in the same direction requires real political leadership. That is made difficult by the fact that the loudest conservative voices — the talking mouths of cable news and the talk-radio ranters — have a very heavy financial incentive to be dissatisfied, or at least to pronounce themselves dissatisfied, with whatever it is that Republican congressional leaders decide to support, while the president himself, who has decided that railing against Congress will be his substitute for leading them in his direction, has similar incentives.
If these two issues are any indicator, then the Trump administration’s keystone issue — immigration reform — is on a course to end up wrecked upon the same rocky shoals.
Can that be prevented?
The Republican party is at odds with itself over what it actually wants out of an immigration policy. One the one hand, libertarian-leading Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce crowd think that the case for free trade is also the case, more or less, for free immigration, that the free flow of goods and capital across borders ought to be complemented by the free flow of labor. The “open borders” Republican is mainly a straw man deployed by the talk-radio gang: Advocates of a genuine open-borders policy of the sort that Great Britain maintained in the 19th century, when immigrants could show up in London without so much as proof of identity (much less a visa), are scarce. But there are a fair number of Republicans who prefer relatively high levels of immigration, including relatively high numbers of low-skilled immigrant workers from Latin America.
Opposing them are more restrictionist populist-nationalist Republicans, some of them in the Trump mold and some of them intelligent and responsible. These include those who see the world the way my colleague Mark Krikorian does, believing that current levels of immigration are bad for domestic workers, especially low-wage workers, and that recent immigrants have placed undue burdens on domestic institutions, especially the social-welfare and criminal-justice systems. They want lower immigration across the board, not only a crackdown on illegal immigration but also a significant reduction in legal immigration.
Can these differences be resolved in such a way as to allow the emergence of a unified Republicans approach to immigration?
Yes. And not only that: Democrats can be brought on board, too.
Democrats, in reaction to Trump, are at the moment moving rhetorically in a more liberal direction on immigration. But that is not where the Democratic base is right now, especially in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. At Bernie Sanders rallies I attended in Iowa during the primaries, union-hall Democrats offered up many an earful about the need for immigration control, and Senator Sanders himself denounced the Republican view of immigration as an “open borders” scheme hatched by right-wing billionaires looking to undermine the economic position of the American working class. Many of those voters no doubt cross the aisle for Donald Trump in places such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Democrats cannot afford to lose those voters permanently, and they know as much.
So, where to begin?
Begin by cordoning off the issue of illegal immigration.
With the exception of a few oddballs and ideologues, we can all agree that whatever our national immigration policy ends up being, it must be conducted in an orderly and lawful fashion. That means that getting control of illegal immigration needs to be the first order of business. Happily, that is something we can do without waiting years or decades to build new walls that will, in the end, address the problem only partially. (Most illegals do not wade across the Rio Grande; they enter legally on visas and then violate them.) Through workplace enforcement (mandatory use of the E-Verify system) and modest financial controls (making it hard to cash a check or pay remittances without proof of legal status) we can greatly reduce the economic attraction of illegal immigration to the United States. (Border walls, properly understood, are not about illegal roofers and avocado-pickers: They are about terrorists and their instruments.) Jeff Sessions could do a great deal to advance this if he happened to haul in a few poultry-plant bosses or general contractors for employing illegals. There is no shortage of cases from which to choose.
Addressing illegal immigration is something we can do right now.
Republicans should pursue this first and in legislative quarantine from other immigration reforms: It emphatically should not be part of a “comprehensive” immigration-reform package. Illegal immigration is — focus, now — illegal. We can take positive steps to control this problem right now, in a relatively straightforward fashion at relatively low cost. If our more libertarian-leaning friends are correct (I’d bet against them here) and the nation’s agricultural industry is hamstrung by a lack of workers — if the United States should decide that it has a shortage of poor people with few professional skills — then that problem can be addressed in the future fairly easily. If what happens instead is that the price of tomatoes and landscaping labor goes up a little bit, then the republic shall endure.
There are many good and useful proposals for immigration, such as replacing family-oriented chain migration with a policy oriented more toward the economic needs and economic interests of the United States. President Trump’s “radical” proposal would reduce immigration to levels not seen since . . . the 1980s, which is to say, to a few hundred thousand immigrants per year rather than the million or million-plus of recent years. A period of relatively low immigration might help in the projection of assimilation, which currently is producing mixed results. My own preference is for an economically oriented policy that, callous as it may sound, is approximately Cato for rich people and Krikorian for poor ones: Bring on the highly educated and affluent, the doctors and investors and entrepreneurs, and maybe take a pass on the 13 millionth day-laborer.
That’s a debate worth having. Indeed, the failures of Republican health-care and tax-reform efforts suggest very strongly that we need to have more of those debates in order to forge some kind of politically viable consensus behind conservative policy projects. But we do not have to do everything at once. Addressing illegal immigration is something we can do right now, something that Republicans and (most) Democrats can get behind — and should get behind.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.