Some Good News On Immigration

The GOP needs to stop hyperventilating about immigration. My most tangible frustration with today’s Republican Party is all the shouting about “illegals” and “amnesty” when we ought to be emphasizing how important newcomers are to a nation of immigrants. Knee-jerk nativism during the early Republican primaries prevented Mitt Romney from presenting any sensible immigration reform policies. That was a shame, considering that President Obama, with the exception of circumventing Congress on certain portions of the DREAM Act, built no resumé on immigration issues during his first term.

In last year’s State of the Union, President Obama bragged that “there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.” That’s technically true, in a tragic sort of way. The U.S. only has fewer people crossing the border because of a lousy economy that encourages potential immigrants to stay put. Net U.S. migration is currently flat. It’s time for a conservative solution.

Hopefully, with Senator Marco Rubio’s leadership on the bipartisan immigration Senate reform bill, conservatives’ cognitive dissonance over immigration is finally coming to end. And hopefully we’ll stop talking about the American Dream and deportation in the same breath.

The bill, revealed on Tuesday, works toward establishing earned-legal status for unauthorized immigrants and has the backing of four Democrats and four Republicans. Indeed, this is a rare showing of bipartisanship in our fragmented capital city and may provide the kind of political healing that President Obama’s leadership has so far lacked.

Under the proposal, those who are currently unauthorized must pay fines and back taxes and submit to a background check–a very reasonable trade-off for becoming citizens. So-called “DREAM-ers,” or children of undocumented parents who did not themselves willingly break U.S. immigration law, will not face these penalties. Legal status, of course, offers immigrants job flexibility, higher wages, and greater incentives to learn English and further skills.

Moreover, the bill increases the number of green cards available and ends the absurd quota system that has previously dissuaded so many Indian, Chinese, Mexican, and Filipino workers from even applying for a green card because of the seemingly endless wait times.

Alas, too many conservatives, repeating the same slogans that have hurt them with Hispanics voters since 2006, say that they support immigration, so long as its the legal kind.
What many on the Right don’t understand are the labyrinthine waiting lines that prevent all but the most highly-educated  immigrants from entering the country. They picture their own ancestors legally landing on Ellis Island without acknowledging that the immigration waves in the late 19th and early were far less regulated than they are today.

Despite the restrictionist Right’s reputation, I’m convinced that this is a malleable issue. Those who care about hard work, close families, and upward mobility should also care about fixing our immigration system and transitioning those who are here illegally to come out of the shadows and assimilate as welcome and productive citizens.

The fact that Mitt Romney earned just 27 percent of Hispanic support was pitiful. But, unlike many think tanks on the Left celebrating the growing U.S Hispanic population as means for securing a permanent progressive coalition, I don’t think demographics are destiny. Just because a person is Hispanic does not make him a card-carrying Democrat. Especially not if the GOP can bring its policies on immigration back in line in line with the rest of the Party’s ideals regarding liberty, risk, and the ladder of success. As Marco Rubio said in the Senate TV Studio earlier this week, first in English, then in Spanish, “We are dealing with 11 million human beings who are — who are — who are here undocumented, the vast and enormous majority of whom have come here in pursuit of what all of us would recognize as the American dream.”

Unfortunately, the bill recycles some bad ideas as well. It makes use of federal employment verification system, E-Verify, which, in states like Arizona, where the program has been in place since 2008, only encourages government invasion of the workplace and drives undocumented workers further into the black market. The bill also misguidedly calls for 100,000 new border patrol agents and does not do enough to establish a guest-worker program for lower-skilled immigrants to transfer across jobs and meet the needs of various adopting industries.

Perhaps the most salient conservative talking point against increased immigration is that immigrants are a drain to the Welfare State. Instead of citing this as reason to curb immigration, Republicans should use immigration reform as leverage for shrinking government. Demanding budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling has been a losing issue for Republicans. Why not instead force Democrats to rein in spending in return for much more open borders?

The economist Milton Friedman famously noted that no nation can sustain both open immigration and state largesse. A large and adaptable workforce is an economic asset, but not if newcomers are consuming expensive government services. I suspect many individuals would even contract to forego welfare benefits in return for a legal visa. Passage of the 1996 welfare reform act shrank welfare rolls, even as legal and illegal immigration rates continued to rise.

Conservatives are at a turning-point when it comes to U.S. immigration policy. May they never again air those nativist 2012 primary ads. Liberalizing immigration, while conserving the American Dream, seems a better course.

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