GOP Needs a Rethink on Immigration: Shift the Tone

By Mark Krikorian on January 7, 2009

National Review Online, January 7, 2009

As the 111th Congress convenes, Republicans need to rethink their immigration policy.

This isn’t because of the supposed lessons of last November’s elections. Despite his herculean efforts at passing Ted Kennedy’s amnesty bill, Sen. McCain’s share of the Hispanic vote was in the usual range for Republicans — though lower than the Republican share in 2004, just like among every other category of voter. He did lose, after all. And if no Hispanics at all had voted, Sen. Obama would still have won.

This Congress will be the first since 1965 in which major immigration legislation will be considered with Republicans not in control of any part of the national government (other periods of unified Democratic control didn’t feature any big immigration debates). And it didn’t work out too well last time: Sen. Kennedy’s 1965 immigration-law changes — which he promised, on the record, would not lead to any increase in numbers or change in the flow — sparked what has become the largest wave of newcomers in our history.

With Republicans shut out of power, now is the time to take a new look at their approach to immigration, to develop a new and distinctive alternative to the majority party. In other areas, such as health care or the environment, such a reassessment might conceivably yield different policies than in the past. But on immigration, what is needed is not so much a reversal in specifics but a different framework within which to fit the specifics.

For too long the Republican story line has been “Too Much Lawbreaking,” when instead the real problem is “Too Much Immigration” — only one part of which involves lawbreaking. This exclusive focus on illegal immigration — opposing amnesty and pushing for more enforcement — is both incomplete and counterproductive. Incomplete because the effects of illegal immigration aren’t that different from those of legal immigration — an illiterate Central American farmer with a green card is just as unsuited for a 21st-century economy as an illiterate Central American farmer without a green card. And it’s counterproductive because the focus on criminality can seem punitive and serve to polarize the debate, potentially aliening not just immigrant voters, who really aren’t that numerous, but the native-born, who want less immigration but don’t want to feel bad about themselves for holding such a view.

A new approach would retain the widely popular, and morally compelling, support for more consistent application of immigration laws and opposition to legalization — but make them part of a broader push for a more moderate level of future immigration overall. If the debate focuses solely on legality, ultimately there’s no real argument against amnesty and open borders. You just legalize the whole thing and the issue goes away — no illegals, no problem. In the appropriately larger context, amnesty is bad not only because it rewards lawbreaking (which it does), but also for the same reason that the Visa lottery is bad: it leads to excessive immigration.

A new GOP approach to immigration would also recognize that there are two components to the debate — immigration policy and immigrant policy, the first governing who and how many we take, the second how we treat people once they’re here.

If you think of these two elements as axes on a graph, immigration levels are the x axis and treatment of immigrants the y axis. That gives rise to four general approaches, one for each quadrant. The first is a pro-immigrant policy of mass immigration — what Kennedy and McCain and Bush and Obama imagine themselves supporting, though it’s questionable whether tomorrow’s mass immigration helps yesterday’s immigrants.

The opposite combination would be an anti-immigrant policy of low immigration — keep immigrants out and tighten the screws on those who slip through. This is the caricature of the immigration restrictionist, though it doesn’t describe too many people accurately, if my experience is any indication.

Then there’s what might be considered the policy we have now — an anti-immigrant policy of mass immigration, one that admits lots of people but makes sure they don’t get too comfortable. Among the most notable anti-immigrant elements of our policy are the growth in guestworker programs — which are little more than indentured servitude — and the unwillingness to fund immigration-processing services adequately, leading to inordinately high fees, long waits, and all-too-frequent snafus.

The final option is the one most Americans (of whatever party) intuitively support — a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration, one that seeks a smaller number of future admissions but extends a warmer welcome to those admitted.

Ironically, such reductions in immigration could actually drain away some of the venom from the immigration debate by allowing a more relaxed approach to those immigrants we do let in. For instance, something called “cancellation of removal” can be used by a judge to allow a legal immigrant to stay despite a deportation order, because of hardship to his family. Because of mass immigration, causing the system to be a sieve, Congress raised the bar in 1996, from “extreme hardship” to “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.” A lower level of immigration, allowing us to reestablish control, would permit Congress to trim back a couple of adjectives, because the problem wouldn’t be as acute. The same could apply to other areas, such as welfare eligibility, where tough standards are required in the face of massive numbers, but more flexibility is possible when the tide ebbs.

Thus a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration can serve two purposes — it puts the illegal immigration question into a larger context, providing more than simply a gut-level opposition to amnesty. And it can allow a more flexible and less punitive approach to management of immigrants already here, making a policy that will necessarily involve a certain degree of sternness be somewhat less severe.