The GOP needs to become the party of “Yes” on immigration

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Whether or not they win big this November, Republicans need to stop thinking of themselves as the “party of opposition.”

Being the party of “no” makes sense if the Democrats have the majority.  But if the GOP regains the House or Senate, or both  – as well as a majority of the nation’s governorships and state legislatures – the country will be looking to Republicans for more positive, pro-active solutions.

Simply saying “no” to higher taxes, rising deficits, and bigger government won’t be enough.

Take the hot-button issue of immigration.   Currently, many Republicans seem content to lambaste President Obama and the Democrats for pushing a sweeping legalization program – an “amnesty” – for illegal aliens at a time when so many native-born Americans are out of work and when illegals still cross the US-Mexico border with considerable impunity.

Their rallying cry for months has been “enforcement first.”  Following the Obama’s decision to sue Arizona over its new enforcement law, Republicans have been pushing for similar state laws in some 20 other states, from Utah to Virginia.

And they’re backing a special border security bill sponsored by Arizona  Sens. McCain and Kyl, the first such “stand-alone” legislation in years.

That’s all well and good – but it’s not a complete immigration program.   Only about half of the current illegal alien population actually “jumped the fence” on the southern border with Mexico.  Most came perfectly legally on temporary visas, then “over-stayed” their welcome.  Beefed up border security doesn’t address this dimension.

In fact, the heart of our enforcement challenge is not the border, but the interior.  We need to reduce the “job magnet” that allows Mexicans and other groups to earn 8-10 times what they can earn back home – and to save enough to send billions back to their families annually.

But Republicans need to decide how best to do that.

As an alternative to toothless “employer sanctions” policies, Democrats are promoting the idea of a tamper-proof Social Security card with a biometric identifier such as a thumb print.  All US residents, including US citizens, would be required to obtain such a card to prove that they’re legally eligible to work.

The GOP continues to promote “E-Verify,” a worksite verification system that’s currently in use on a trial basis in only a small sector of the economy.  Democrats have attacked E-Verify because it appears to be accurate in detecting illegal aliens less than 50% of the time.

That puts the GOP in the uncomfortable position of defending what appears to be the “weaker” enforcement system.    Which, if true, certainly won’t help Republicans make their case with the American public in the next legislative session.

In fact, there are good reasons not to support a national ID card.  It will take years to phase in, and it’s enormously expensive.   To privacy groups, including conservative libertarians, it smacks of Big Brother.

Besides, why should all US residents be asked to re-authenticate their identity just to prevent a small illegal minority from usurping the workplace? It’s a bit like demanding costly changes in the entire health care system – and forcing citizens to purchase health insurance – just to cover the uninsured.

The GOP should continue to promote E-Verify – at least as an interim solution.    Expanding a proven system, despite its flaws, is actually preferable to starting over with an untested, Big Government solution.

But, in fact, the real challenge for the GOP is to articulate a more prosperity-oriented vision for immigration policy – and that means shifting the country’s attention away from controlling illegal immigration towards promoting more and better legal immigration.

The GOP, as the party of prosperity and mobility, needs to remind the country that immigrants are still our nation’s lifeblood – but only if we design the proper policies.

For example, the United States is currently losing the increasingly globalized competition for skilled scientific and technical workers because it refuses to adjust its visa policies to recruit and retain the “best and the brightest.”

Republicans should be in the forefront of a plan to eliminate the visa cap for H-1 skilled workers and to make it easier for foreign-born students in our universities to obtain green cards, instead of forcing them to return home, which bolster our competitors’ economies.

The same common-sense pro-immigration policies should also be adopted for unskilled workers.   In a deep recession like the current one, native-born workers can replace some of the illegal aliens currently in the construction, retail, and service industries.

But in an expanding economy, the labor market demand for unskilled workers will outstrip the domestic supply – by about 400,000 workers per year.   We will still need to channel foreign-born, unskilled workers into our economy through some kind of legal system – either through a temporary worker program, or with more green cards.

Simply saying “no” to foreign, unskilled workers won’t protect our economy’s labor markets, which have needs at both the “high” and “low” ends of the skill spectrum.

Finally, there is no reason to alienate Latinos who might otherwise lean Republican with exceedingly harsh – and at times, xenophobic – rhetoric about illegal aliens.  As we close the enforcement noose tightly, to deter future illegal flows, there should be room in our hearts for compassion and leniency towards those who have lived and worked in the US illegally for many years, paying taxes, and obeying our laws, when our enforcement policies were lax.

A sweeping legalization program should be opposed, but some illegal alien “long-stayers” — those here 15 years or more, married with children, owning homes or businesses — might be allowed over time to obtain a conditional legal status, in order to continue their outstanding contributions to our national well-being.

In short, it’s time for the GOP to challenge the Democrats with its own version of “comprehensive immigration reform.”   A brutal tough enforcement system that deters illegal entry and hiring, an expanded visa system to channel high-demand and high-performing legal workers into our economy, and a modicum of compassion – call it “clemency” not “amnesty” – towards those in our midst illegally making superior contributions – these are the “three pillars” of an alternative Republican policy.

On immigration, it’s time for the GOP to become the party of “yes.”

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs.  He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.