Contra Nadler 2.0: On immigration, conservatives advocate attrition through enforcement, not mass deportation.

By Mark Krikorian on February 26, 2009

Richard Nadler complains that his critics didn’t address his main premise: that conservatives are advocating “mass deportation,” and that such a position is sure to alienate Hispanic voters. That’s because there are no serious advocates of “mass deportation.”

If conservatives were in fact supporting the mass roundup and deportation of 11–12 million people, losing the Hispanic vote would be the least of our problems. But, of course, mass deportation is not the only alternative to amnesty. Instead, the position that many conservatives (and others) actually favor is attrition through enforcement — a reduction over time in the illegal population through consistent, comprehensive application of the law, something we have never really attempted.

The principle behind an attrition policy is simple enough: dissuade more prospective illegals from coming and get more of those already here to leave — partly through increasing regular deportations but mostly through voluntary return. The result would not be a magical disappearance of the problem but a reversal of the trend, so that the total number of illegals starts decreasing with each year, instead of increasing.

This can be accomplished through a variety of means. Limiting the arrival of new illegals involves not only additional fencing and other border-control measures, but also tighter standards in permitting the admission of visitors (people who overstayed their visas account for a quarter to half of all illegals). The key to encouraging self-deportation is to make it as difficult as possible for illegals to live a normal life here — getting a job, opening a bank account, driving a car. None of these things require tanks or machine guns, just the consistent application of existing law and the spread of tools like E-Verify, an online system that enables employers to check the legal status of new hires.

This is not fanciful. My organization’s analysis of Census Bureau surveys, confirmed by the Pew Hispanic Center, suggests that the illegal population peaked at 12.5 million in August of 2007, shortly after the collapse of the Bush-Kennedy-McCain amnesty bill in the Senate, and through May of 2008 had declined to 11.2 million. And, unlike in past recessions, which were not preceded by stepped-up enforcement, this decline in the illegal population started before the unemployment rate for illegals began to increase. In other words, attrition works.

It’s also preferred by the public. During the 2006 amnesty debate, we commissioned a Zogby poll offering respondents not the false choice between mass deportation or amnesty (a word we did not use in the survey), but rather a three-way choice between mass deportation, earned legalization, and attrition — and attrition was preferred two-to-one over legalization.

Unfortunately, the new administration shares Nadler’s distaste for enforcement and penchant for dishonestly equating an attrition approach with mass deportation. Thus we can expect that the reversal of illegal immigration that we’ve seen over the past year or so to stop.


So conservatives do not support “mass deportation.” But do hawkish immigration views nonetheless hurt them among Hispanics at the polls? Nadler hasn’t demonstrated that this is the case. He asks, “How obvious does a fact have to be?” But if his examples are “obvious,” then I have to echo Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The two “typical examples” he presented of how the immigration issue played out in the 2008 elections are simply two Democratic candidates repeating identical lies about a single provision in a bill. Specifically, they were lying (as Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out) about Sec. 202 of H.R. 4437, claiming the provision would result in the arrest of nuns working in soup kitchens who happened to have ladled out some gruel to illegal aliens. Are Republican candidates responsible for lies spread by their opponents?

More important, immigration was not a significant issue in the races Nadler cited. In fact, a recent report found that in only one of the seats Republicans lost in 2008 was the Republican an immigration hawk and his successful Democratic opponent an explicit supporter of legalization. The Democrats who claimed to support enforcement may well have been lying; in fact, I’d put money on it. But the fact that they felt the need to lie speaks volumes about amnesty’s lack of political appeal.

The House races Nadler highlights are illustrative of this. In the Ric Keller/Alan Grayson race in Florida, neither candidate even mentioned immigration on his website. The Republican incumbent, Keller, was weakened by a broken term-limits pledge as well as a close call in the primary against an immigration hawk.

The other race Nadler highlights — by quoting the Democrat telling the soup-kitchen lie — is actually amusing. As happened in the Florida race, Nevada’s Jon Porter (R) and Dina Titus (D) both declined to mention immigration on their campaign sites. And here’s the funny part: Nadler doesn’t bother giving us the full story of Titus’s statements on immigration. When she told the soup-kitchen story she was before a Hispanic audience, but here she is a few months before the election, talking to a Nevada political site that reached a broader demographic:

I agree with people that immigration is a serious problem and the federal government has failed to resolve it. . . . The number of illegal immigrants has increased considerably over the last administration and the time that Jon Porter’s been in congress. . . . I voted for a bill . . . that said no driver’s licenses for illegals. . . . I also voted . . . to fine businesses that hire illegals or undocumented people. . . . I believe as long as there is a job here, people will come. Also at the federal level, the only thing they’ve done is start to build a fence, which hasn’t made a bit of difference. . . . You’ve got to close that border in a realistic way with more guards and better technology if you want to stop the flow. I don’t want the services being used either.

Did Nadler simply pick a bad example? Or is it his position that Republicans should speak out of both sides of their mouths like Titus did, given that she won?


Along those lines, let’s accept for the sake of argument that a pro-enforcement stance on immigration would cost Republicans some of the one-third of the Hispanic vote that they customarily get (including in 2008), or that it would cost the GOP the chance to increase that share. The question then is, how far should any party compromise its beliefs in order to expand the tent?

Nadler’s work is devoted to such tent-expanding. His site focuses on outreach to blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, and this is a genuinely important task. But how to achieve it? Nadler asserts that “mass deportation is a deal breaker” for Hispanics — he offers no evidence, but since it would be a deal breaker even with me, I’ll take his word for it.

The implication is that Republicans should avoid “deal breaker” beliefs when it comes to targeted demographics, so let’s look at other groups on other issues. Among Nadler’s outreach targets are Jews, who vote even more reliably Democratic than Hispanics. The 2000 Survey of American Jewish Opinion found that nearly two-thirds of Jews think abortion should be “legal under any circumstances” — probably double the proportion in the public at large. What’s more, it’s likely that a strong pro-life position is almost certainly a “deal breaker” for a very large share of today’s American Jewish voters. Should we therefore become a pro-choice party to attract them?

By the same token, it’s likely that opposition to affirmative action is a “deal-breaker” for many, perhaps most, black voters. Gallup reports that something like three-quarters of blacks support affirmative action, a figure that holds steady among self-identified liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Should Republicans embrace racial preferences in the search for these votes?

Nadler’s evocation of support for amnesty from business lobbyists is no more persuasive. Of course, modern conservatives believe that the government should ensure a hospitable climate for the flowering of free enterprise. But it’s quite a stretch to claim that therefore, conservatives should always implement the policy preferences of business groups. Take the stimulus bill — not a single Republican House member voted for it — that was supported by both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Should the GOP have taken its cues on this abomination from the business associations that Nadler holds up as authoritative?

How about opposition to gay marriage? Peace through strength? Limited government? Are there any principles Nadler thinks we shouldn’t abandon in the quest for votes?

Principles matter. And David Frum, in Comeback, lays out in no uncertain terms how central the principles of American sovereignty and self-determination are to the Republican brand. Nadler’s proposal would undermine those principles; that’s why Nadler’s original piece was so attractive to the Left that the Southern Poverty Law Center applauded it at a recent event on Capitol Hill.

It’s one thing to criticize some on our side of the aisle for intemperate and strident rhetoric; the need to avoid such rhetoric is a caution that should always be before us, whether debating immigration, abortion, gay marriage, or anything else. Americans don’t — and shouldn’t — dislike immigrants (or pregnant teenagers or homosexuals) as people, and Republicans need to make clear that they don’t.

But Nadler is offering something very different. Lacking an appreciation for how intensely actual Republican voters feel about illegal immigration, he’s asking the Republican party to tear itself to pieces. “Dissolve the base and elect a new one,” to paraphrase Brecht — hardly a wise strategy.