Immigration questions House conservatives should ask Rubio

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is scheduled to talk immigration with House conservatives. Rubio is the designated tea party senator in the Gang of Eight; the House is where “comprehensive immigration reform” has gone to die since 2006.

If Schumer-Rubio is going to avoid the fate of McCain-Kennedy, the senator from Florida is going to have to convince House members from heavily Republican districts that there is something different about the latest immigration gambit. Rubio is no McCain, but that’s no reason for conservative congressmen to let him off the hook. They should raise some pointed questions.

What evidence is there that this legislation will help Republicans win Hispanic votes? This sounds petty and partisan, but would many of these House conservatives even be considering Schumer-Rubio if Mitt Romney had won a respectable share of the Hispanic vote?

In 1986, a Congress with a Republican-controlled Senate passed and President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration reform bill that gave permanent legal status to 2.7 million people already in the United States illegally. They even admitted it was an amnesty.

Pete Wilson voted for it. Pat Buchanan supported it. Tom Tancredo and Joe Arpaio were outside the public eye.

The next Republican presidential nominee did 7 points worse among Hispanic voters than Reagan did in 1984, winning just 30 percent of the Latino vote to the Democrats’ 69 percent. The Democratic standard-bearer that year was Michael Dukakis, who carried just 10 states.

In 1990, George Bush signed into law a bill that increased legal immigration by more than one-third. The legislation created the diversity visa program, expanded certain employment-based visa programs and gave temporary protected status to people from El Salvador. When Bush ran for re-election two years later, he won just 29 percent of the Hispanic vote, a slight decline from his previous share.

Why will a bill signed into law by a Democratic president produce a different result?

What evidence is there that this legislation will work? The 1986 amnesty was followed by more illegal immigration. Four smaller amnesties passed in the 1990s, including Section 245(i), were followed by more illegal immigration. In fact, the target population for these legislative proposals has grown from 3 million in 1986 to an estimated 11 million today.

When you bring up these facts, comprehensive immigration reformers insist that things are completely different now without offering particularly compelling reasons why. They tend to mutter about borders, shadows, 9/11 and the brokenness of the immigration system. But the Gang of Eight’s forerunners also invoked borders, people living in the shadows, national security and the need to fix the immigration system. Their solutions just didn’t work, which is why we are still having this debate now.

Why isn’t this amnesty? Advocates of legalizing illegal immigrants always say they oppose “blanket amnesty.” But who supports it? Every earned legalization program has come with conditions attached. Some, with fines and back taxes, are stricter. Others are more lenient. They all remove the threat of deportation and give legal status to people here illegally.

Don’t let the lengthy “path to citizenship” fool you. The right to live and work in the United States is the prize. As of 2010, only 40 percent of the people amnestied under the 1986 law were citizens. Whether you wish to use the “a-word” or not, the path to legalization is more important than the path to citizenship.

How much will this cost? When the Heritage Foundation released a study estimating that the newly legalized would cost taxpayers $6 trillion over 50 years, Gang of Eight proponents undertook a full-court press to discredit the results. They preferred to emphasize the Social Security Administration’s conclusion that legalization would benefit the program’s solvency (though if you read the fine print, that is only over the next 10 years, before most of the legalized immigrants would draw benefits).

But if Heritage is wrong, then what is the real price tag? And can it be calculated without “dynamic” gimmickry or selective use of numbers? No less a free-market economist than Milton Friedman warned about the problems the welfare state poses for open immigration. Immigration enforcement cost about $18 billion in fiscal 2012.

How much will this increase immigration overall? Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions has suggested the Gang of Eight plan would eventually introduce 30 million new foreign workers into the American labor force. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has denied this. Rubio himself has issued a press release calling this a “myth.”

So what’s the real number? How much does it rely on assumptions that the plan will offset increases in legal immigration by successfully cutting illegal immigration? If the answer is “the size of the future population of the United States will not be significantly impacted by this legislation,” as Rubio’s office previously argued in a fact sheet, why should this be taken more seriously than Ted Kennedy’s erroneous projections about the 1965 Immigration Act?

Why take the Obama administration’s word on border security?  A Senate panel killed tougher border security triggers and put much of the discretion in the hands of the homeland security secretary — a President Obama appointee who has already said the border has never been more secure.

It’s understandable that Senate Democrats don’t want to delay the legalization of illegal immigrants until certain border security criteria are met. Why should House conservatives go along with this?

Why not enforcement first? The conventional wisdom is that only comprehensive reform makes real enforcement possible. But the stepped-up enforcement of the last few years was the result of the failure to pass such legislation. Both the Bush and Obama administrations realized that it was a necessary precondition for trying again.

Enforcement hasn’t been the norm. Employer audits declined by 77 percent between the fiscal years 1990 and 2003, warnings issued to audited employers of illegal immigrants dropped 62 percent and fines plummeted 82 percent. Even the improvements in recent years have been mostly on the border. Interior enforcement is still neglected.

Even so, illegal immigration is down. Why reverse course now?

How Marco Rubio answers questions like these — and whether Republicans in the House even bother to ask them — will tell us how tough a gang the Gang of Eight really is.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.