Contra Nadler: Yes, reach out to immigrants—but not by admitting more of them.

By Mark Krikorian on February 13, 2009

National Review Online

Richard Nadler utterly misses the point in his NR piece on immigration. He argues that Republicans should accept amnesty and increased immigration in exchange for promises of future enforcement (“comprehensive immigration reform”). He claims that such a move could win the votes of Hispanics, and that “every hour we postpone a border reform that respects the interests of employers and Hispanics, our entire agenda suffers.”

On the contrary, the threat to the GOP and its agenda is not the party’s opposition to mass immigration, but mass immigration itself. The majority of Hispanics vote Democratic, and this would surprise no one knowledgeable about American history: That’s what immigrants, and the native-born closest to immigration, have always done. The Irish voted Democratic not because Yankees were mean to them as they stepped off the boat in Boston, but because the Democratic party has always been more attractive to the outsider. (David Frum touches on this longstanding difference between the two parties in his book Comeback.)

This remains the case today because mass immigration creates a political and social environment more hospitable to the solutions offered by the Left. It increases poverty and economic inequality, increases the number of uninsured, increases demand for affirmative-action benefits (for which immigrants are eligible from the moment they arrive)—in short, mass immigration in the near term doesn’t so much create an electorate for the Left as a clientele. My organization’s research has shown that the fiscal burden of immigration increases with legalization, as use of taxpayer-funded services balloons among newly eligible immigrants.

Democrats openly acknowledge the political bonanza of immigration. As National Journal wrote in 2007:

Top Democratic leaders and activists see Hispanic migration as a long-term opportunity for the party. The arrival of additional immigrant workers is “bad for blue-collars,” Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told National Journal late last year. But immigrants can help elect Democratic majorities, and “if [a Democratic Congress] were to significantly strengthen unions, then you would offset the negative effect on the income of workers,” he said.

It’s not a bad thing that Republicans and Democrats represent different interests; any successful society needs a north pole and a south pole, a yin and yang. The problem with excessive immigration is that we’re getting too much yin and not enough yang, as it were. And because today’s immigrants side with Democrats on not just immigration policy but a host of other issues, Nadler’s prescription of me-too Republicanism on immigration can’t change that. The fact that John McCain—the exemplar of the me-too approach—couldn’t carry the Hispanic vote even in his home state of Arizona, where voters knew full well his expansionist, pro-amnesty views, suggests that the way out of the hole some Republicans find themselves in is not to keep digging.

Implicit in Nadler’s argument is a kind of fatalism, an acceptance that mass immigration is inevitable: He encourages Republicans to win Hispanic votes through supporting mass immigration, without weighing the benefits of that approach against the benefits of a successful attempt to significantly decrease immigration. He calls the growing Hispanic share of the population “a demographic time bomb, triggered by the ordinary migrations of Hispanic citizens.”

But mass immigration—legal or illegal—is not inevitable; it’s an artifact of government policy that can be ended by changing that policy. How can we change policy in a way that will prevent the conservative agenda from suffering? Here the two parts of the issue are often conflated; immigration policy relates to how many foreigners we admit and how we enforce immigration laws, while immigrant policy is about how we treat people we’ve already admitted.

The solution for Republicans is to champion a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration—one that can stanch the immigration-driven shift toward the Democrats in the West through lower numbers and better enforcement, but that also reaches out to our fellow Americans of Hispanic ancestry both rhetorically and substantively. Republicans could support overhauling the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide professional and efficient service, and loosening some of the deportation requirements for legal immigrants with families here convicted of minor crimes.

The recent SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) debate in the House illustrates another way such an approach might work. House Republicans argued unsuccessfully for maintaining the SCHIP eligibility bar for legal immigrant children and pregnant women who had not been in the country for at least five years, a provision contained in the 1996 welfare reform. Let’s face it: Denying health insurance to immigrant little kids and expectant moms—legal immigrants, no less—does not send a message that will win Republicans support.

Adherents to a pro-immigrant/low-immigration approach would have offered a deal: support for dropping the five-year residency period for SCHIP in exchange for some significant reduction in future immigration, say elimination of the brother-sister chain-migration category. With the Democrats in the majority, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference, but the political point would have been made: a warmer welcome for those we’ve legally admitted, in exchange for reductions in the future number of people to whom we’ll have to extend that (costly) welcome.

One final point: Immigration is certainly an issue that affects the way people vote, but let’s not overstate its importance. Nadler has a tendency to blame a hawkish stance on immigration for setbacks that simply have nothing to do with it. His claim that immigration was the reason that business contributions shifted from Republicans to Democrats between 2006 and 2008 ignores the obvious fact of a change in party control of Congress—businesses like to give money to winners. Likewise, his contention that resistance to amnesty was the reason for the defeat of Virgil Goode or Thelma Drake or Rick Keller or Marilyn Musgrave is simply laughable.

Nadler’s prescription would be cyanide for the GOP. But the right prescription is simple: less immigration, more outreach.