Opinion

KOLB: It’s Time For The GOP To Embrace Immigration Amnesty

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that Republicans need to embrace amnesty for illegal immigrants. You can find a counterpoint here, where Preston Huennekens, Government Relations Manager at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, argues that amnesty is a bad idea.

For over 30 years, the Republican Party has been playing defense on immigration reform. It’s time to change course and heed the advice of former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett: in Washington, you’re either on offense or on defense, and it’s far better to be on offense.

The last “high point” for the GOP on immigration reform came in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed legislation that increased family-based and skill-based visas. It was also the most comprehensive immigration-reform bill in nearly 50 years. During his last week as White House Chief of Staff, John Sununu said that Bush’s signing of that immigration bill was one of his proudest moments while serving at the White House.

The signing, however, almost didn’t happen. Months before, the Bush administration opposed  the legislation, given concerns raised by the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury.

Shortly after joining Bush’s White House team in June 1990, I began hearing from Hispanic-American and Asian-American interest groups asking the same question: why was a Republican administration against legislation that rewarded work and family values? Weren’t these virtues core Republican principles?

Good question. These groups made sense. The Bush administration should be endorsing, not opposing, this legislation: it represented sound policy and sound politics.

Rob Chess, now Chairman of bio-tech company Nektar Therapeutics and back then a White House Fellow assigned to the White House policy office, shared similar views. Working together, we quietly out-maneuvered OMB and Treasury to reverse the administration’s stance. Our success was due to the fact that senior West Wing staff were focused elsewhere. Bush signed the bill on November 29, 1990.

Today, it’s estimated that there are some 10.5 to 12 million illegal (undocumented) immigrants in the United States. There’s also the issue of children born in this country to parents who were here illegally.

Occasionally in politics, reality intrudes with the sobering realization that “you’re for what happens.” Many of these immigrants have now integrated into our society. Yes, they got here illegally because we lost control of our own borders. In this case, however, a nationwide effort to identify and deport millions of people would constitute bad policy and bad politics. Such an effort would also be inhumane and further undermine national unity.

Immigration has always been a strength of American history and culture. Our remarkable ability to attract, assimilate and empower people from other countries has helped us economically and culturally. Other countries (China, France, and Japan, for example) have found it more difficult to achieve similar results.

At the same time, we must regain control over our borders. Uncontrolled immigration is unsustainable.

So, to borrow a favorite line from President Biden, here’s the deal: let’s continue to secure our borders by whatever means prove most effective (even building out the wall in some areas if that’s what it takes). At the same time, let’s offer amnesty to those seeking a legal path to citizenship.

There’s an ongoing, positive post-Trump debate about the Republican Party’s future. As this debate continues, it’s also important to recognize that Trump managed to reposition the GOP in ways that appeal to populist, working-class Americans, much the way Ronald Reagan attracted “Reagan Democrats.”

Reorienting the GOP demographically as the political party that champions the future of America’s working class would be a positive development, one that cuts across several demographic divides and addresses legitimate concerns about growing income disparity without succumbing to unsustainable, unaffordable and sometimes looney progressive nostrums.

Sen. Mitt Romney’s proposed Family Security Act provides a universal child allowance and additional child tax credits. It’s an important step in a similar direction.

Bill Clinton sounded almost Reaganesque when he highlighted the importance of rewarding Americans who worked hard and played by the rules. He was right to do so, and the GOP should now go on offense to support policies rewarding hard work and safe, vibrant communities.

Americans are pragmatic, sensible, open-minded, forgiving and fair. They appreciate, recognize and reward hard work. Republicans should again embrace these values and support amnesty and a path to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who, as Bill Clinton noted, are doing the right thing. Voters will reward the GOP accordingly.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House