Do Republicans Stand a Chance on Immigration Reform?

After its failure to defeat a vulnerable President Obama and to retake the Senate in the 2012 elections, leading Republicans and conservative thinkers have conducted a searching critique of their Party. National Review, Commentary, and the Weekly Standard, three of the most important voices of conservative thinking, devoted nearly entire issues to dozens of penetrating and often scathing critiques of the Party by major right-leaning thinkers.

Although it would be a stretch to say that a consensus developed about any single factor accounting for the Party’s poor electoral performance, a prominent culprit was what might be called right-wing absolutism. In Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice gives an insider’s view of the cleansing of moderates from the Republican Party since the Goldwater/Johnson presidential election of 1964. The cleansing of moderates has in turn resulted in Republicans who win House and Senate seats being, on average, well to the right of the American public. On issue after issue, including taxing the rich, budget compromises that include spending cuts and tax increases, the Dream Act and general immigration reform, and increasing the debt ceiling, polls show that Republicans have been out of step with the public. Indeed, the intransigence and rhetoric of some Republicans on these issues have contributed greatly to public polls showing that a majority of the public blames Republicans for the gridlock in Washington. In a New York Times/CBS poll, for example, 60 percent of those surveyed say the president is attempting to negotiate with Republicans to work things out while only 27 percent said Republicans are making the same effort.

Perhaps chastened by defeat and their standing in the polls, Republicans so far in the 113th Congress appear to be presenting a more reasonable public persona. Speeches on poverty and opportunity by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio were thoughtful and well received. The decision to avoid a showdown and instead to compromise on the debt ceiling is another sign of new Republican thinking. But the biggest opportunity of all is presented by immigration reform.

A Bipartisan Issue

It would be difficult to overstate the advantages to our economy of immigration reform. A key part of reform should be adjusting the basis for admitting immigrants from the current overemphasis on family relationships to immigrants already in the country, to a greater emphasis on the education, skills, and experience of those we admit. Other nations are attracting well-educated immigrants by giving them preferences for admission and a clear path to citizenship. We’re losing out. We should make it especially easy for students to enter and stay in the U.S. According to a recent Brookings study, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to found a business than native Americans. A study by the Kauffman Foundation reported that immigrants were involved in the founding of a quarter of engineering and technology companies created between 2006 and 2012. There is also evidence that immigrants who work in science and technology substantially increase employment among native-born Americans.

Another reason so many conservative thinkers are recommending that Republicans support immigration reform is that Hispanics are an increasing portion of the American population and are a critical part of the electorate in many states. One number shows the Republican problem: Romney received 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. With nearly a quarter of all children (and rising) now being Hispanic, the Hispanic share of voters is sure to increase in the future. Immigration reform gives Republicans a chance to overcome the perception that they are anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic.

What About Illegal Immigration?

Thus, Republicans have every reason to support immigration reform. But there are two problems. The first is that our borders are not secure. While it is true that the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has declined in recent years, the reason is that our economy has lost some of its sheen. But when the economy starts humming again, illegal immigration is certain to rise. Violating the nation’s laws is not a good way to begin a path to becoming an American citizen. So tightening border security is a real issue.

But the barn door has been open for many years and we have around 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. What should happen to them? Again, Republicans are justifiably concerned that creating a path to citizenship for those who violated our laws to get in is tricky business. The common Republican argument that if we once again allow illegal entrants to become citizens, as we did in the immigration reform legislation of 1986, why would any future illegal entrants not think they can violate U.S. laws and still eventually become citizens?

It’s Time for Compromise

A reasonable Republican response to the twin issues of containing illegal immigration and dealing with undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. begins with the realization that Republicans are the minority party and must compromise to get a deal. Further, Republicans should enter the debate understanding that there will not be a bill unless the issue of undocumented immigrants is addressed. So Republicans must find political tradeoffs between increasing border security, especially by strengthening measures to prevent undocumented entrants from getting jobs, and creating a path to citizenship for those already here. In a perfect world, adults who enter the U.S. illegally should not be able to stay and become citizens. But we don’t live in a perfect world and both humanitarian and political considerations overmatch the reasonable desire to keep illegal entrants from becoming citizens. Achieving a compromise on immigration will be the most important test of whether Republicans are now willing to get things done by compromising with Democrats and the president.