Magazine | February 23, 2009, Issue

At What Cost?

Conservatives should rethink their opposition to ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform

Conservatives should stop trying to remove 12 million illegal aliens from American soil, either by rounding them up or by inducing them to “self-deport.” In the Southwest, the West, the Northeast, and Florida, attempts to remove illegals have diminished the conservative movement, transforming a governing majority into a structural minority. To continue the effort will damage the conservative cause even more among Hispanics and entrepreneurs.

To understand why, consider the three permanent interests involved in immigration.

The first interest is border security. Today, a border jumper entering the U.S. from Mexico has a two-in-three chance of remaining here. An uncontrolled border is a potential target for terrorists, and a sure target for criminals. Many interpret our porous border as a degradation of national sovereignty. Others regard a free market in cross-border labor as an economic liability, driving down American wages.

The second interest centers on employment demands. Business groups representing seasonal and low-cost labor regard access to foreign workers as an economic necessity and an overall economic boon. Today, roughly 5 percent of American employees — 7 million — are “undocumented.” In particular sectors, notably agriculture, construction, cleaning, and food services, the undocumented share of the labor force exceeds 10 percent.

Finally, a variety of groups lobby for immigrant rights. They demand legal status for most of America’s 12 million illegal residents. The public faces of this interest are the left-leaning Hispanic and civil-rights organizations. But advocates for illegals include millions more: their friends, families, co-workers, and clergy, plus a substantial majority of legal Hispanic residents. Roughly 80 percent of the undocumented are Hispanic.

These interests are permanent, and formidable. “Comprehensive” immigration reform was premised on the assumption that any major legislative attempt to satisfy one of these interests must address all three. In 2006, and again in 2007, the Bush administration championed a version of comprehensive reform; Senate Republicans blocked it. Opponents, primarily conservatives, insisted that immigration reform address border security first or exclusively.

Partisans of cross-border labor and immigrant rights reciprocated in kind, rejecting full-spectrum conservative candidates who opposed comprehensive immigration reform in favor of full-spectrum liberals who supported it. In 2008, advocates of comprehensive immigration reform gained, on net, at least 14 partisans in the House and four in the Senate. All are Democrats.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2004, roughly 40 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush. Hispanic opinion patterns mirrored those of low-income working-class voters nationwide: liberal on economics, but with powerful conservative cross-trends on social issues and entrepreneurship.

For instance, the CNN exit poll concerning Proposition 8 — the California Marriage Protection Act — found that Hispanics (along with blacks) provided the slender majority by which the measure passed. A Pew Hispanic Center poll of over 4,000 Hispanics reported that 57 percent “say abortion should be illegal,” compared with 42 percent of non-Hispanic whites. An Americas Majority poll found 81 percent of Hispanics supportive of school choice.

With or without comprehensive immigration reform, Hispanics are the fastest-growing component of the evangelical movement, due to both immigration and higher-than-average fertility. Hispanics will, within a single generation, compose a majority of American Catholics.

According to the massive 2004 and 2008 Edison-Mitofsky exit polls, between the two elections, Republicans lost and Democrats gained 13 percent of the Hispanic vote in the presidential race and 15 percent in House races. Some analysts contend that immigration cannot explain this radical shift in the GOP’s Hispanic vote share. Others maintain that no radical shift has occurred. And some, like Prof. James Gimpel of the Center for Immigration Studies, claim both. In his paper “Latino Voting in the 2008 Election,” he says that “Latino voters just aren’t that different from other voters in the national electorate” and that “no evidence . . . indicts immigration policy as the reason for Republicans’ poor showing.”

#page# The evidence Professor Gimpel presents contradicts his conclusion. The Edison-Mitofsky national House polls show Hispanic support for GOP congressional candidates declining at triple the rate of the GOP’s general decline (5 percent). Regarding immigration policy: In Border Wars: The Impact of Immigration on the Latino Vote, I measured precinct-level variations in the Hispanic vote when a Republican who favored comprehensive immigration reform in one cycle was succeeded by an “enforcement only” candidate in the next. I cannot claim that immigration policy alone caused the steep attrition of GOP vote share recorded in that study. But I can state that the votes trended steeply away from restrictionists in hundreds of heavily Hispanic precincts.

The disconnect between religious faith and partisan loyalty that exists among blacks is well documented. In California, the same black electorate that voted for the Marriage Protection Amendment by better than two-thirds supported the candidacies of amendment opponents by better than nine-tenths. If Hispanics stop voting as other working-class Americans do and think of themselves instead as a persecuted, government-dependent minority, the social influence of the Right will wither on the vine.

Conservatives have been obtuse to the depth of Hispanic resistance to the removal of illegals. Roughly 30 million resident Hispanics are American citizens — triple the number of Hispanic illegals. Eleven million Hispanics voted in 2008, a 38 percent increase from 2004. Among adult Hispanic citizens, the Pew Hispanic Center records that 41 percent fear a deportation action against a friend or family member. Roughly one Hispanic in four participated in a demonstration or rally in behalf of immigrants over the past year.

In America today, 6.6 million households contain at least one illegal immigrant. Residing within those households are 4.9 million children and 3.5 million U.S. citizens. Conservatives who present themselves to Hispanics as pro-family had better reflect on this. Two centuries of unguarded borders will not be resolved by instituting “real ID” as a basis for mass removals.

The fear and the fury engendered in the broader Hispanic community by conservative efforts to remove illegals has destroyed conservative prospects in the Southwest, weakened them in the West, and wiped them out in New England.

The dimensions of the disaster in the Southwest are easy to outline. Arizona is 30 percent Hispanic; California, 36 percent; Texas, 36 percent; New Mexico, 44 percent. In 2004, Republicans controlled four of the nine House districts on the U.S.–Mexican border, and George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in five of them. That year, all four Republican incumbents supported comprehensive immigration reform. In 2006, two Republicans ran on “enforcement only,” and both lost. In 2008, two veteran border Republicans vacated their seats. The GOP ran two “enforcement” candidates. Pro-reform Democrats defeated them both.

In one sense, nothing changed. In both 2004 and 2008, all nine congressmen on the border supported comprehensive immigration reform. What has changed is that all nine now are liberal Democrats.

Since 2004, Republicans lost two Senate seats and two House districts in Colorado (20 percent Hispanic), and a single House seat each in Idaho and Nevada (10 percent and 25 percent Hispanic respectively).

In the New England, Democrats not only maintained their 2006 gains in Connecticut and New Hampshire, they unseated the one GOP congressman left standing, immigration hardliner Chris Shays. Jim Himes, a Peruvian-born banker and an open advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, won the seat. The district is 12.3 percent Hispanic.

Larry Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, flagged 90 House districts as competitive in 2008. A post-election demographic analysis of those races reveals a stark pattern as to who won where. The median Hispanic population of districts in which “enforcement only” advocates won was 2.3 percent. The median Hispanic population of districts in which immigration-reform advocates won was 12.1 percent.

The implications are clear. Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are sitting on a demographic time bomb — or rather, on a series of explosions, triggered by the ordinary migrations of Hispanic citizens, who already are 15.1 percent of the population. If immigration reform is the evil that “enforcement only” partisans claim it to be, they will need not one fence bordering Mexico, but multiple barriers to partition California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Florida, New York, and New Jersey from the rest of the nation.

#page# The ballyhooed success of conservatives in blocking comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 was in fact a holding action. With superhuman effort, conservatives stopped the bill. But they lacked the votes to pass robust enforcement-only legislation, such as Heath Shuler’s “SAVE” Act or Jim Sensenbrenner’s Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act.

Conservative focus shifted gradually to the states, where enforcement advocates could, at some times and in some places, enact legislation requiring stringent employee verification and harsh sanctions against non-compliant employers. Conservatives assumed the law would compel illegals’ bosses to become deportation cops. This proved false.

Underlying business outrage at conservative immigration policy was a simple fact: The overwhelming majority of illegal hires had been, procedurally speaking, legally hired. Employers resisted mandates to revisit the immigration status of employees in whom they had invested time and training.

The I-9 system, operative for the past generation, requires an employer to accept certain combinations of several dozen forms of identification. The list includes foreign passports, school report cards, student ID cards, and hospital records. Employers who refuse to accept such shabby documentation as evidence of employment eligibility are warned, on the form itself, “It is illegal to discriminate against work eligible individuals. Employers CANNOT specify which document(s) they will accept from an employee. The refusal to hire an individual because the documents presented have a future expiration date may also constitute illegal discrimination.”

Few conservatives foresaw how employers would react to the replacement of this weak federal standard with a patchwork regime of conflicting state and local immigration-enforcement statutes. The new enforcement laws in Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere presented employers — particularly those based in multiple states — with a whole new set of headaches. Compliance with the rickety I-9 system had provided employers a “safe harbor”; so long as they followed procedure, they were immune to legal action when hires turned out to be unlawful. But now, business owners faced conflicting lists of acceptable ID documents, electronic-verification mandates, appeals procedures, penalties, and causes of action. The safety of the I-9 had disappeared, not into a new harbor, but into a whirlpool of liability.

Business rebelled. All across the nation, associations of restaurateurs, landscapers, farmers, ranchers, heavy constructors, hoteliers, food-service operators, home builders, and high-tech entrepreneurs locked horns in lawsuits against employer-sanction laws and their conservative sponsors. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and dozens of state chambers joined the litigation, asserting that employer-sanction laws violated the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.

The face-off between conservatives and business did not end at the courthouse steps. In 2008, the average Democratic candidate burnished his business credentials by supporting guest-worker programs, the average GOP candidate ran on “enforcement only,” and business contributions shifted away from conservatives and Republicans. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the GOP share of political contributions from each of the following declined by 5 to 14 percent between 2006 and 2008: tourism groups, farm groups, poultry producers, food-and-beverage associations, general contractors, home builders, and computer and Internet companies. A comparable increase in contributions to Democrats matched each of these sector declines.

#page# Conservatives traditionally self-identify as guarantors of free enterprise. We hardly noticed that entrepreneurs believed us less, or not at all. But if we weren’t willing to listen to them, we might at least have listened to ourselves. The theory that low-wage work is a net drain on social well-being originated with Marxists, not conservatives. Market economists taught that the freer the market for labor, the more efficient its use. Farmers realized that their export markets abroad required seasonal workers at home. Municipal leaders understood that contemporary urban renewal was built on immigrant hospitality services and entrepreneurship. Practical men of business knew that the availability of low-wage labor in the United States prevented the export of higher value-added tasks in an international workplace.

The notion of judging a sector of labor, native or immigrant, primarily on its net generation of taxes — rather than on its contributions to the economy more broadly — would never have entered a free marketer’s mind.

But by the middle of 2007, such thinking had infested the mainstream of the conservative discourse. Talk radio, conservative bloggers, and even hoary think tanks Rushed (so to speak) to unearth crises associated with low-wage labor in general and illegal-immigrant labor in particular. Illegals were responsible for lowering median income and for raising unemployment among the poor. Illegals were responsible for a crime wave, a health-care crisis, and an education-funding deficit. Immigrants were swelling poverty rates and welfare rolls.

These accusations are inconsistent with much of the evidence. In my paper “Immigration and the Wealth of States,” I compared high- and low-immigration states in terms of income growth, unemployment rates, welfare eligibility, and crime during the great immigration rush of the Bush years. Trends in all these categories were better in high-immigration states — but they were best where immigration growth had been most rapid. This does not mean that an immigrant influx caused prosperity in and of itself. But the data from high-immigration states reinforces the contention of laissez-faire advocates that a free market in labor increases both the range and the availability of goods and services.

In the last several cycles, Republican enemies of immigration reform took a shellacking. The defeated champions of the restrictionist cause in 2008 included incumbents Virgil Goode, Thelma Drake, Steve Chabot, Bill Sali, Ric Keller, Tom Feeney, Marilyn Musgrave, and Jeb Bradley, attempted successor to a Republican Jim Oberweis, and challenger Lou Barletta. Save for Barletta’s, all of these defeats occurred in historically Republican districts. Lost are their votes not just on immigration, but on right-to-life, school reform, tax cuts, budget restraint, military readiness, and, yes, border security.

Considered as conservative policy, any immigration reform that would effect the removal of 12 million illegals is incongruous. How does it improve national security to hold up legislation that includes needed border reforms, in the hopes that an “enforcement only” package may one day come around? How does it help the economy to break 7 million labor agreements, depriving businesses of seasonal and low-wage workers? How does it advance a right-to-life agenda to antagonize the nation’s foremost pro-life ethnicity (Hispanics) and largest pro-life institution (the Catholic church)?

At some point, conservatives must reflect on how many allies, and how many issues, we are willing to sacrifice in a fey and futile attempt to get field workers, busboys, and nannies out of the country. The steady drumbeat of restrictionist defeat invites — no, requires — conservatives to revisit a concept we have glibly reviled: comprehensive immigration reform. The relevant question is no longer whether we want it, but what we want from it: what forms of border security, crime control, and employment verification. Every hour we postpone a border reform that respects the interests of employers and Hispanics, our entire agenda suffers.

– Mr. Nadler is president of the Americas Majority Foundation, a public-policy think tank in Overland Park, Kan.

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