The ‘you can’t outflank Democrats on immigration’ fallacy

Joshua Culling Government Affairs Manager, Americans for Tax Reform
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After a catastrophic Election Day, a number of high-profile conservatives have come out in support of a new path forward for the Republican Party with respect to immigration reform. Speaker John Boehner promised a comprehensive reform effort in 2013, Charles Krauthammer endorsed “amnesty” in a column, and Sean Hannity has “evolved” on the issue, calling for a path to citizenship on his radio show yesterday.

The motivation for this sudden shift is mostly political, as the GOP woefully underperformed among Hispanic and Asian voters on Tuesday. And it has prompted a backlash on similarly political grounds: No matter how far the GOP goes to accommodate Hispanics and Asians, the argument goes, Democrats will simply pander more intensely, positioning themselves as leaders on the issue while Republicans are merely trying to keep up.

Laura Ingraham pushed this argument last night on Fox News. She contended that while both parties may eventually come to a bipartisan agreement on a path to citizenship, Democrats will only push the envelope further, promising direct subsidies to immigrants or an expanded welfare state. While somewhat intuitive, I think this logic is flawed for two reasons.

First, the vast majority of immigrants come to America for economic opportunity — jobs — not handouts. The promise of more welfare is not compelling. The evidence is clear that new immigrants to the U.S. overwhelmingly go to states with smaller welfare states and faster-growing economies. Texas, not California, is the immigrant destination of the future. Focusing on relatively small immigrant welfare abuse has, at best, diminishing marginal political returns. At worst, it’s insulting to the immigrant community and will put Republicans in the doghouse for a generation, as the California GOP learned in post-Proposition 187 California.

Second, a bloated welfare system is vastly unpopular, especially among America’s native-born population. And the makeup of the electorate suggests that any party that tries to attract immigrant support by offering immigrants direct subsidies will lose more votes than it will gain. It makes zero political sense to gain one Hispanic vote at the expense of three votes from other groups.

There’s a political equilibrium here, and it’s a path to citizenship. An immigration reform proposal that truly secures the borders while providing opportunity to those talented and hardworking potential Americans who wish to participate in our economy is the correct policy outline for both parties. Allowing more lawful immigration, a comprehensive and accessible guest worker program open to workers of all skill levels, and a path to legalization would eliminate most unauthorized immigration and grow the economy.

Future immigrants will be more open to the Republican Party because, unlike many immigrants who are already here, they won’t have been harmed or insulted by Republican politicians.

In the 1920s and 1930s, about a million people of Mexican heritage (including U.S. citizens) were deported from the U.S. Those who were left behind resented the U.S. government quite a bit. When their descendants tried to organize civil rights and left-wing movements in the 1960s to redress their grievances and vent their anger at their historically poor treatment, they had almost no success with Mexican immigrants who had come during the 1940s and later. The later immigrants didn’t care because they weren’t related to the people harmed.

By increasing legal immigration, Republicans will dilute the level of anti-Republican resentment among the immigrant community and its descendants so long as the Republican Party embraces the new immigrants as Americans.

When Hispanics and Asian-Americans see bipartisan support for immigration reform, they will move on to their second- and third-tier vote-moving issues. Immigrants will then listen to the Republicans on the other issues that matter to them, including taxes, regulations, life, marriage, and the size of government. Republicans can at least double their support amongst Hispanics and Asians on those issues if they mend their ways on immigration.

Joshua Culling is state affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform.