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.
Another poorly designed amnesty/normalization/ guest-worker program could do significant damage to the Republican Party nationally. Immigration gateway states such as Texas, Nevada, and Georgia could easily shift more Democratic; over the past few cycles, Republican presidential candidates have done only marginally better in Georgia than George H.W. Bush did in California in 1988, so political reversals can happen quickly. Moreover, an anti-worker immigration bill, passed with Republican support, could further disillusion middle-class voters with the GOP, suggesting that Republicans really had no interest in solving this nation’s various labor crises.
Immigrants have played a noble role in the American national narrative, and the clarion call of opportunity in the United States is and ought to be a treasured national tradition. One can certainly understand from a human perspective the plight of many illegal immigrants, driven by poverty in their own lands to foreign shores. Now is not the time to demonize other people or to cast reckless aspersions. Sensitive issues — and immigration surely is such an issue — warrant sensitivity. But they also warrant prudence and honesty. Americans have every right to demand that the legislation passed by their representatives benefit the body politic. They have every right to subject any proposal to a sustained and rigorous interrogation. Republicans have every right to work to ensure that seemingly “comprehensive” immigration measures do not simply update the problems of the present and the shortcomings of the past.
The GOP’s failure at the polls in 2012 does have a silver lining: it presents the Republican Party with the opportunity to rally behind pro-market policies that help workers and the middle class. In the face of years of stagnating incomes and a declining sense of security on the part of the middle class, Republicans could argue for a kind of economic uplift that rewards effort, talent, and virtue. Rather than pitting immigrant against immigrant and native-born worker in a race to the bottom of wages, this kind of economic model would try to offer prosperity to all by having a market where labor is valued and opportunities abound. A poorly designed immigration bill, however, could short-circuit this dynamic by initiating a flood of cheap and government-subsidized workers who would put further pressure on wages and on government finances. Rather than economic renewal, we could get an intensification of the present poor job market.
A poorly designed piece of “comprehensive immigration reform” would in many respects be far more radical and consequential than anything the president has yet signed — bigger than the stimulus, more revolutionary than Obamacare. Even a trillion dollars in misguided spending can be made up for by financial prudence in the future, and Obamacare can always be revised. This is not the case with an immigration amnesty. Once an amnesty is passed, the bell cannot be unrung. A bad piece of law can be repealed, but the amnesty will be with us forever. And the consequences of a flawed amnesty could undermine the necessary conditions for a renewal of the economy, the middle class, and the future of limited-government conservatism. There are two points Republicans ought to keep in mind when negotiating over a comprehensive immigration reform measure or any other immigration normalization/amnesty: Is it good for the party, and is it good for the country? (Obviously, the second point merits much more moral and intellectual weight.) There are reasons for Republicans to be skeptical on both counts.
Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.