One of the central issues confronting Republicans after 2012 is how to reinvent the GOP to make it a more viable national political force. This need for a GOP reinvention or at least restoration is in the background of the contemporary debate over comprehensive immigration reform, including the recent Senate “Gang of 8” proposal. Republican advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” often argue that such reform would be a necessary step toward political modernization. However, there are also many reasons to believe that a poorly designed immigration bill could actually get in the way of Republican renewal. There is an increasing awareness on the part of many analysts that the hollowing out of the economic middle is deeply connected to the current long-term stagnation, and a growing segment on the right has found that middle-class restoration could be key to restoring the vitality of both the Republican Party and conservatism. It seems hard for Republicans to be the party both of middle-class renewal and of unlimited (and government-subsidized) cheap labor. The GOP has perhaps far more long-term viability in advocating the former position, but a flawed immigration bill could easily lead to the latter scenario.
Perhaps we should be concerned that Senator John McCain has claimed that the current Senate “Gang of 8” proposal is “not that much different” from the failed 2007 immigration proposal backed by the Bush White House and many current supporters of immigration reform. Ah, 2007 — the overture for the housing collapse, Wall Street’s meltdown, and the Great Recession. Back then, elite consensus assured us that “comprehensive immigration reform” was utterly necessary, just as it assured us that the housing bubble was nothing to worry about and that the nation’s financial system was utterly sound. Only a ferocious bipartisan grassroots outcry was enough to derail that elite dream for immigration. Washington’s recent solutions to the problems it helped precipitate have not always been entirely effective, either. Dodd-Frank has potentially exacerbated the financial dynamic that led to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the president’s plans for economic improvement have not exactly worked out as well as promised, so the promises of elite-driven immigration reform might also not be delivered on.
Though some of the details of the “Gang of 8” immigration deal differ from those of Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, many of the same challenges remain. Won’t this amnesty encourage more illegal immigration in the future? Won’t it give a civilly suspect advantage to illegal immigrants (by giving them and their extended family residency well in advance of those who have followed the law and waited outside this nation’s borders until they receive permission to move here)? Won’t it encourage a further degradation of wages for many legal immigrants and native-born workers? Won’t it place further burdens on an increasingly strained social safety net? Much could be said for reforming our nation’s immigration laws, and one can very much understand the value of bringing illegal immigrants who are otherwise integrated into our society out of the shadows. But history suggests that the burden of proof needs to be on advocates of amnesty proposals to show why their proposed legalizations, unlike those of the past, will not in fact lead to more people in the shadows and a more civilly divided nation.
These are not small issues for the future of the Republican Party and sustainable conservatism. The fallout from the Reagan amnesty injured the Republican Party in California by undermining the middle class and increasing social divisions. The Reagan amnesty helped set off a new wave of immigration (both legal and illegal), much of which hit California with vigor. The resulting unregulated outpouring of immigrants and their children put new strain on the social safety net, helping drive middle-class Californians away. Since the early 1990s, Californians have been leaving the Golden State for other parts of the country, sometimes at a clip of over 300,000 a year; millions of foreign-born individuals have taken their place. Immigration is not incompatible with a vibrant middle class, but the perpetual influx of the foreign-born in a state like California puts new pressures on the incomes of recent immigrants, making it harder for them to climb the ladder of prosperity. The aim of immigration policy should not be to create a continually replenished underclass that undermines the economic opportunity of average workers. Proponents of amnesty like to toss around accusations of being anti-immigrant, but putting recent immigrants in an economic race to the bottom seems itself rather anti-immigrant.