Immigration reform is one of the more conspicuously divisive issues with which the Republican Party must grapple. It divides the party internally and it threatens to divide the party from a majority of all voters – and not merely those of Hispanic origin.
The immigration reform bill that passed the Senate did so with bipartisan support. It was drafted and negotiated by the “Gang of Eight,” which included Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio, and 14 Republican Senators voted for it. In the House of Representatives, however, support for the bill among Republicans appears lukewarm while the opposition is fierce. After a well-publicized caucus, Republicans indicated that while they would introduce individual bills on the subject of immigration, they would refuse to pass anything that would draw them into consideration of the Senate bill, even in conference. While circumstances may change, it seems clear at the moment that prospects of passing a final bill, acceptable to both House and Senate, are exceedingly dim.Immigration reform is a complex issue and involves numerous sub-issues on which reasonable legislators may differ. The Senate bill is approximately 1,200 pages long and in any bill of that size there are inevitably ambiguities, errors and potential for unintended consequences. There also appear to be an inordinate number of provisions allowing for exceptions, loopholes and waivers. Questions have been raised as to the effectiveness of the massively expensive program for border security and whether it is worth the cost. Nevertheless, legitimate as those and other issues may be, the root causes of opposition to the Senate Bill, led by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, are claims that the Senate Bill is a form of “amnesty,” and that providing a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally is an affront to the rule of law. Those claims, however, have little merit.
Whatever one thinks of the Senate Bill, it is not amnesty. The bill provides for the payment of $2,000 in fines and penalties and a 13 year wait for citizenship. Nor does the Senate Bill offend the rule of law. On the contrary, it will help to restore the rule of law. Most fundamentally, the rule of law means that individual cases and controversies must be judged according to identifiable standards and that similar cases should have similar results. It has never meant that the rule itself could not be adapted to meet changing conditions either by legislation or judicial decision. At the present time, enforcement of immigration laws is spasmodic and inconsistent. Passage of immigration reform would have the promise of providing standards that would be enforced and applied with a far greater measure of uniformity.
As a realistic matter, the country cannot and will not continue indefinitely with 11 million residents living outside the law. It is not only a hardship on the individuals and a source of political divisiveness, it limits the contribution that the immigrants can make to the economy. Moreover, the notion of deporting so many people is a practical and political impossibility. Similarly, the concept of “self-deportation” advanced by Governor Romney during his Presidential campaign was aptly described by the Wall Street Journal as a fantasy. At the same time, the political influence of Hispanic citizens is certain to grow rather than to diminish. In short, comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for resident aliens here illegally, is going to happen. If it does not happen in this Congress, it will in the next or the one after that. The question is how much the delay will cost the country economically and how much damage the Republican Party is going to inflict upon itself in refusing to acknowledge the inevitable.
.In Congress, opposition to citizenship is firmly entrenched in the ranks of the House Republicans elected from the most staunchly conservative districts. For those members, any instinct toward flexibility on immigration may be overcome—as it is on too many issues—by fears of a primary challenge from the right. (Such districts are located most prominently, though not exclusively, in southern states. One observer has pointed out that, of the 234 Republican members of the House, 97 — two-fifths — come from 11 southern states.) Even in the Senate, the modest support for the immigration bill came with a hefty price tag for enhanced border security.
Conservative icon George Will has questioned the wisdom of a massive expenditure for that purpose:
“At this intermission in the immigration debate, with House Republicans preparing to look askance at the Senate’s handiwork, the argument is becoming ever stranger. It has reached a boil, especially concerning border security, at a moment when illegal entries are at a 40-year low and net immigration from Mexico has recently been approximately zero, largely because enforcement efficiency has already been substantially improved and because America’s economic growth is inferior to Mexico’s. Yet some Senate Republicans support spending $46 billion over 10 years to, among other things, double the number of border agents.
“The Government Accountability Office says border security in 2011 was about 84 percent effective. A much-discussed aspiration is 90 percent. So the $46 billion is supposed to purchase a six-point improvement. This embarrassing militarization of the border was designed to entice a few of the 14 Senate Republicans (of 46) who joined all Democrats in supporting the Senate bill.”
Still, if $46 Billion is the price that must be paid to accomplish immigration reform, perhaps it is worth it. If so, it may be time to try to change the dynamics of the argument. In the past, the position of opponents of reform has been, “If, and only if, you give us what we think the country needs on border security, we’ll go along reluctantly with a path to citizenship.” Possibly that could be inverted to “If and only if you agree to a path to citizenship, we will reluctantly provide billions more for the border security you so avidly seek.” Thus, those for whom increased border security is a high priority might be made to feel that opposition to the path to citizenship comes with a definable cost.
In consistently advocating immigration reform, the Wall Street Journal has spoken for much of the business community which, like the Journal, sees it as an important pro-growth policy. But there other constituent groups as well. As the Journal recently put it:
The dumbest strategy is to follow the Steve King anti-immigration caucus and simply let the Senate bill die while further militarizing the border. This may please the loudest voices on talk radio, but it ignores the millions of evangelical Christians, Catholic conservatives, business owners and free-marketers who support reform. The GOP can support a true conservative opportunity society or become a party of closed minds and borders.
Some Republicans appear to believe that immigration reform is a trap: that it will make citizens of millions of Hispanic immigrants who will then vote Democratic. That, however, is a prophecy that Republicans can make self-fulfilling by adopting obstructionist tactics. It need not be the future. As Jeb Bush has pointed out, “Republicans have much in common with immigrants—beliefs in hard work, enterprise, family, education, patriotism and faith.”
There is no reason why Republicans cannot capture a fair share of the Hispanic vote. (As recently as 2000, Republicans received 40% of Hispanic votes.) Nevertheless, as both Jeb Bush and Karl Rove have stressed, immigration reform has become a gateway issue—a problem that must be resolved before Republicans can compete on other issues.(According to a recent poll, 83% of Hispanics will be “disappointed” if the House does not pass a bill that includes a path to citizenship,) If Republicans delay immigration reform they will not only alienate the immigrants who become citizens after several years on the “path,” but the millions of Hispanic citizens who are presently eligible to vote, or become old enough to vote in the next several years. In short, immigration reform—including a path to citizenship—is not a trap at all, but an opportunity to level the playing field in seeking the support of Hispanic voters.
It is clear, I believe, where RINOs belong in this debate. On the issue of immigration as in others, the voices of our more conservative brethren should be heard and respected, but they should not be allowed to define our party and risk defining it out of existence.