NR Digital

The Immigration-Policy Fence

by Ramesh Ponnuru
Conservatives should not build one between themselves

We may not be building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, but conservatives on different sides of the immigration debate are busy building one between themselves. Supporters of a “comprehensive reform,” as they call it, see opponents as irrational or even bigoted. Opponents of what they call “amnesty” see supporters as naïve and unprincipled.

This division is not going away soon and may grow more bitter as Congress considers legislation. There is nothing wrong with a vigorous debate among conservatives, of course, but there are a few things each side should keep in mind while the heat rises.

Let’s start with the supporters.

There are no “natural conservatives.” Many Republicans who support comprehensive legislation argue that Hispanics are “natural conservatives” who vote for Democrats in large numbers only because Republican rhetoric and policies on immigration have alienated them. Change the rhetoric and the policies, and they will start voting for Republicans.

The evidence for this conservatism generally consists of the assertion that they are religious, family-oriented, and hard-working. Yet most people in human history have had similar traits without being movement conservatives attached to limited government and the free market. When pollsters examine Hispanic attitudes toward public-policy issues other than immigration, and particularly economic issues, they uncover few signs of incipient conservatism. Nor have Hispanics given a majority of their votes to pro-immigration conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush (whose success among them is routinely exaggerated), or John McCain. That doesn’t mean that comprehensive reform couldn’t boost Republican vote totals among Hispanics; but talk of natural conservatism is much too optimistic.

Do the math and show your work. While many conservatives support comprehensive legislation on principle, it’s the hunt for votes that is swaying Republican minds on Capitol Hill. Setting aside whether it is too crass to perform this sort of political calculation about a matter of such import, does the math make sense on its own terms? Supporters have generally rested their case on a faulty argument: Hispanics tend to favor offering legal status to illegal immigrants; Republicans need to do better among Hispanics; Republicans should therefore support legalization.

Especially on Capitol Hill, the supporters rarely grapple with the obvious counterarguments: Hispanics will give credit for this legislation to the Democratic president who signs it, not to Republicans — especially since many Republicans are guaranteed to vote against it. Support for the bill may reduce enthusiasm for the party among conservatives and white working-class swing voters. Democrats will always be able to find immigration-related issues to continue to outbid Republicans for Hispanic voters (more on this below). If the legislation increases the number of Hispanic voters, Republicans could easily lose more on volume than they gain in margin. Maybe the supporters who are convinced their political strategy makes the most sense have good answers to these objections, but if so they have not shared them.

Exercise charity. This one’s important for participants in any debate, but it is especially important for conservative comprehensivists not to attack the motives of their opponents. Conservatives with reservations about this approach will not be won over by being told they are haters and know-nothings. And people who want more Hispanics to vote for conservatives will not advance their goal by portraying a large fraction of conservatives that way.

Apply your arguments for your reform to your reform. Conservative advocates of comprehensive reform often say that splitting up families through deportation is inhumane. They also say that they are committed to enforcing immigration laws in the future. What then will they do if the guest workers they want to come to this country have children while they’re here? Under the prevailing interpretation of the Constitution, those children will be U.S. citizens. So: Kick out small citizens, break up families, or forget enforcement? If the political point of comprehensive reform is for conservatives to look pro-Hispanic, won’t that militate against enforcement in the future?

For that matter, how does the guest-worker program, which would invite immigrants to work here but deny them full political rights, serve that goal? Democrats would constantly push to make it easier for guest workers, and formerly illegal immigrants now given legal status, to become citizens. Republicans who wanted to hold the line would be labeled anti-Hispanic.

Remember that the country is more than an economy. Supporters of a comprehensive bill often make the case that more immigration would help the economy. Opponents dispute this point. What sometimes gets lost in these debates is that immigrants affect our culture and our politics as well as our economy, and people have legitimate concerns about whether our immigration policies strengthen or weaken our national identity.

Assimilation, in particular, is not just a matter of economics. We should want newcomers to the United States to have a good shot at becoming successful Americans who can support themselves rather than rely on taxpayers, to be sure, but we should also want them to participate fully in local, state, and national political deliberations and in our culture, and to see themselves and be seen by others as Americans. It may be that comprehensivists can make a case that their preferred reforms will help newcomers and native-born Americans come to have a shared sense of belonging, consider their interests common rather than antagonistic, and be able to communicate with one another. But these concerns need to be addressed rather than ignored or dismissed.

Now for the opponents:

Focus your ire on policy, not people. Illegal immigrants have broken laws — laws that the government had the legitimate authority to put in place — and can rightly be faulted for it. Still, the motivation of most illegal immigrants for breaking these laws is an understandable and even laudable one: to provide for themselves and their families through hard work. Opponents of comprehensive reform should acknowledge, as well, that for many years the U.S. government wasn’t taking these laws any more seriously than the illegal immigrants were. We were more or less inviting an illegal inflow.

These points do not, as far as I’m concerned, mean that we are morally obliged to offer legal status (particularly if we have reason to think the offer will spur new illegal immigration). But many people will not be persuaded by, or attracted to, a case against legalization that fails to acknowledge these points. And the more opposition to legalization seems to be rooted in personal antipathy to illegal immigrants as wrongdoers, the more it will come across as anti-Hispanic.

Don’t obsess about the border. Foes of illegal immigration — which is what most people on both sides of the conservative divide say they are — sometimes talk about “border security” to the exclusion of workplace enforcement. Yet nearly half of illegal immigrants came here legally and overstayed their visas. Building a fence won’t do anything to stop this type of illegal immigration. Opponents of comprehensive legislation should not concentrate their energy on tightening border enforcement, or treat concessions on it as more important than they are.

Go after the guest-worker program. Opponents of comprehensive legislation have attacked its earned-legalization component as a betrayal of the rule of law but have been comparatively silent about guest workers. That’s a mistake. The guest-worker program is an ill-considered idea. It poses practical problems its proponents have not begun to grapple with. It is suspect in principle: It is hard to think of a good reason for wanting a large labor force in our country without full political rights. And it splits the comprehensivist coalition, since labor unions generally oppose it while business groups favor it.

Don’t be too tough on Senator Rubio. Conservative opponents of comprehensive legislation have generally refrained from attacking Rubio as a sellout for several good reasons. Many of them like him, agree with him on most other issues, and consider him a promising young leader. They also see that taking shots at one of the Republican party’s top Hispanics over immigration could easily backfire.

There’s another reason the opposition should be careful in its treatment of Rubio. Comprehensive legislation has a formidable coalition of supporters behind it. One of the ways it could fail, though, is if President Obama and the Democrats insist on conditions that make Rubio walk away from the table. Take Rubio out of the coalition, and House passage of the bill becomes unlikely. Opponents of reform thus have a delicate task: They want to raise the pressure on Rubio to stop supporting the bill, but they also have to leave open the possibility of giving him a warm welcome if he does, which they won’t be able to do if they’ve damned him to hell.

Make your own deal. Opponents might be able to split, or at least put pressure on, the comprehensivist coalition by supporting more limited legislation. The comprehensivists have in the past blocked bills to allow more high-tech immigrant workers on the ground that such bills are insufficiently comprehensive — thus refusing to move ahead on an idea almost everyone in Congress supports unless illegal immigrants are also legalized. There is no good reason these ideas have to be tied together.

Mark Krikorian, the head of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, has broached the possibility of combining the DREAM Act — legalization for some people who came here illegally as youngsters — with a requirement that businesses use E-Verify to determine whether hires are here legally. The idea, again, is to split the comprehensivist coalition and take its strongest arguments off the table.

Opponents of comprehensive legislation might even consider going a bit farther than the DREAM Act. The act offers legalization to illegal immigrants who came here as minors if they go to college or serve in the military. Skeptics of comprehensive reform might decide it would be worthwhile to offer legalization to other minors, too, in return for reforming legal immigration so as to place a lower priority on reuniting adult siblings.

The debate over immigration among conservatives is bound to be rancorous. If each side is willing to concede some of the good points of the other, though, it could also be productive.