Immigration and the GOP
March 31, 2006
As Congress battles over immigration, the consequences are likely to be far greater than the details of border walls or green cards. The most important political outcome may turn out to be the message that Republicans send about the kind of the party they are and hope to be.
To wit, do Republicans want to continue in the Reagan tradition of American optimism and faith in assimilation that sends a message of inclusiveness to all races? Or will they take another one of their historical detours into a cramped, exclusionary policy that tells millions of new immigrants, and especially Hispanics, that they belong somewhere else?
Admittedly that paints with a broad brush, but politics is often about broad symbolism, and this is roughly the Republican choice presented by President Bush's approach on the one hand, and that of Tom Tancredo and his platoon of talk-show hosts and Tory columnists on the other.
Let us quickly say that not every American concerned about immigration is part of the latter group. The breadth of new immigration, legal and illegal, in recent years has literally changed the face of America. Our own view is that this has been mostly for the better -- in revitalized inner cities, a younger workforce to fuel a dynamic economy, and in general helping America avoid the senescent future of other industrial nations.
But there have also been costs, and parts of America have borne more than have others. The border states in particular have experienced more crime and social disruption, as well as the cost to local taxpayers of "free" health care and education for illegal immigrants. To the extent they work and pay rent, illegals do pay for those government services. But we don't dismiss lightly the anxiety that many Americans feel at this rapid pace of demographic change. Well meaning politicians, such as Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who feel obliged to respond to that anxiety in this election year are not part of the nativist brigades.
The issue is the form and message that response takes. For Republicans in the House especially, the approach has been to send the most punitive message possible to both illegals and anyone who assists or hires them, no matter how innocently. They're backed by a small but vocal band of "conservative" media who denounce any rational idea for legalizing the 11 million illegals already in the U.S. as "amnesty."
Never mind that even under the most liberal proposals now in Congress, current illegals would have to pay a fine, learn English, and wait upward of a decade to qualify for citizenship. And no matter that these pseudo-conservatives have no alternative policy, other than to arrest and deport millions in a way that would cause far more social and economic disruption than we have now.
Such a punitive policy would alienate business owners and religious conservatives among the GOP base. But because the policy is aimed largely at Hispanic immigrants, it will also rightly be seen as a specific ethnic rebuke. Millions of Hispanics -- both illegals and those who have been here for decades -- will get the message that the Republican Party doesn't want them. Those Republicans who shout "no amnesty" and want to make illegally crossing the Rio Grande a felony are well on their way to creating a generation or more of new Democratic voters.
This is a mistake Republicans have made too many times before. In the 1920s, their anti-immigration bills alienated Catholic newcomers from Europe, who weren't open to GOP appeals in any numbers until the Reagan years. In postwar Hawaii, Republicans made the same mistake with Asians and Pacific islanders, turning that state safely Democratic. And most recently, in 1994 in California, they rode Pete Wilson's Proposition 187 to a short-term re-election victory but at the cost of polarizing Hispanic voters and making themselves the minority party in our largest state.
First as Texas Governor and then in the White House, Mr. Bush has wisely tried to change this anti-immigration image of the GOP. Among Hispanics in particular, he has made enormous progress. Bob Dole won 21% of the Hispanic vote in 1996, Mr. Bush improved that to 35% in 2000 and again to 44% in 2004. Given that the Hispanic share of the electorate has climbed to 8% in 2004 from 2% 20 years ago, and is likely to climb to 12% by 2020, Republicans who ignore Hispanic voters are guaranteeing themselves future political defeats.
Yes, some pundits insist, often in their own immigrant accents, that every naturalized Hispanic is a future Democratic voter. But Hispanics have never been the political monolith that African-Americans are. Cubans have voted Republican since they started migrating in the Castro era, and millions of other Hispanics have shown they are as open to GOP appeals as any other ethnic group as they rise in income and homeownership. But conservative ideas on taxes, crime and foreign policy will never get a future hearing if Republicans now send a message that they are only a party of Anglos, or only of those Hispanics who've been here since the days of the Alamo.
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The immediate danger is that Republicans will ignore their longer-term interests by passing a punitive, and poll-driven, anti-immigration bill this election year. Any bill that merely harasses immigrants and employers, and stacks more cops on the border, may win cheers in the right-wing blogosphere. However, it will do nothing to address the economic incentives that will continue to exist for poor migrants to come to America to feed their families. And it will make permanent enemies of millions of Hispanics, without doing anything to draw illegals out of the shadows and help them assimilate into the mainstream of American culture and citizenship.
This is not Ronald Reagan's view of America as a "shining city on a hill." It is the chauvinist conservatism usually associated with the European right. How Republicans conduct and conclude their immigration debate will show the country which kind of "conservative" party they want to be.
To be sure, Reagan would not be pleased with some of the rhetoric today. We must recognize that the US is the "shining city on a hill" (thanks in large part to the Reagan revolution) and that it continues to draw immigrants in from around the world.
Immigration is a badge of success for your country. Emigration is a sign that your country is failing. Compare the US with Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Mexico.
And it is a positive force for our economy. However, we must make sure that we take steps to insure that the nautre of our American culture is not destroyed and balkanized. This can be done, but only if we know who is here... the illegals in the shadows of the barrios will never assimilate and adopt the culture and perspective of their current home. Embracing them into the American Experience is the first step to transform them into Americans.
Here's how I would handle illegal immigration... Create a guest worker program that gives a worker status for a specific period and expires unless the person applies for citizenship (and perhaps passes an English language test). For those illegals already here, they have 6 months to report themselves in order to get guest worker status. After that period, those who are still illegal (ie never signed up for guest worker status) and are discovered through employers, law enforcement, etc are immediately deported.
Any guest worker or remaining illegal immigrant that commits a felony is immediately deported and not allowed to return.
Focus border patrol on the remaining influx of illegals, which would be significantly reduced since most would be able to satisfy the requirements for the guest worker program.
I realize that I probably don't represent the views of most of us that typically subscribe to the GOP position. Heck, I know that many of my conspirators here probably don't agree with me (HELLO?!?! Comments anyone?!). But, I'm only trying to do what is best for the country, recognizing the reality of our current situation both from an economic and political standpoint.
ARC: St Wendeler