The Corner

How Conservatives Should Think About Immigration Reform

What should conservatives think of immigration reform? Conservatives believe in personal economic freedom and open trade in fair markets, and they favor pro-growth policies. They recognize that price and wage competition benefits the public, and that monopolies, shortages, gluts, and similar woes are either figments of a liberal imagination or the direct result of an overly intrusive government. And conservatives are grounded in economic reality and inured to the temptations of both liberal fantasies for government reinvention of the human condition and ideological assertions not based on the facts.

As a result, conservatives believe that “wherever it may lead, a debate on U.S. immigration policy ought to be based on facts. Regrettably, a number of myths about immigration work against a reasoned debate. The sum of these myths is that immigrants lower the standard of living of U.S. natives. This simply is not supported by the evidence.”

Of course it isn’t. After all, conservatives understand the flexibility and growth capacity of markets: “If immigrants were to cause large amounts of unemployment in particular industries, the phenomenon would surely be noticeable. Yet no empirical study has found such unemployment in noticeable amounts.” Instead, “Immigrants not only create new jobs indirectly with their spending, they create new jobs with new businesses, which they are more likely than natives to start.”

Finally, when it comes to the welfare state — certainly not a favorite of conservatives — we understand that “it is frequently alleged that immigrants no sooner arrive in the U.S. than they become public charges, draining welfare money from the U.S. taxpayers and paying no taxes. Solid evidence gives the lie to this charge.”

Those sentiments, expressed in a 1984 study on immigration reform by the Heritage Foundation, remain the beacon of conservative thought. A subsequent 2006 study on immigration reform by Heritage had nearly identical findings and sentiments. These studies directed conservatives to evaluate the merits of immigration and other policy reforms by their impact on the growth, vibrancy, and health of the private sector.

Imagine the confusion among thoughtful conservatives, then, when in 2007, and repackaged and rereleased today as version 2.0, a Heritage study failed to consider the implications of reform and instead looked solely at the cost of low-skilled immigrants and those effects on the government’s profitability! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. 

What is the impact on innovation and entrepreneurship? Are there new avenues for upward mobility through small businesses and job creation? Will the America of the next generation be an advanced hub of global commerce, or next in line behind a fading Europe and declining Japan?

Those are important questions.

What clearly does not matter is the Left’s favorite metric for policy success: the profit or loss accruing to the government. After all, the task of taming the exploding welfare state and turning our system of taxation from class warfare to common good is a battle for another day and place.

Without change, the broken Social Security system will make future beneficiaries the victims of a 25 percent slash in benefits during their retirement. Medicare runs a $300 billion cash-flow deficit today and will collapse under its red ink without real reform. Medicaid provides poor Americans with poorer care and impoverishes states in the process.

Conservatives understand that the progressive Left will deploy the politics of fear and envy to argue that red ink dictates the need for no reform other than higher taxes. Conservatives have learned this should be ignored, and that real fiscal solutions require fundamental reforms that will be much easier to accomplish in a vibrant, growing economy. 

Immigration reform is a step toward that future. It is not, however, puppies, kittens, and sunshine. It is full of hard calls on security, employer rights and obligations, appropriate penalties, legal lines that must be drawn, sectoral economic policies, and fundamental visa reforms. The necessary upshot is that reform legislation will be long and complicated, and will satisfy no one entirely. That is the nature of the legislative beast.

That reality should not disguise the core opportunity afforded by immigration reform: a stronger economy, more rapid economic growth, greater economic opportunity, and a commitment to the premise that free people in pursuit of their dreams benefit all of society. 

For years, the progressive Left has been peddling the notion that this very commitment is a hoax designed to perpetuate a classist society of exploitation. It would be a shame to see the opportunity for a conservative policy victory fall victim to this sinister vision.


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