Op-Ed

Gingrich vs. the Immigration Status Quo

Peter Skerry

Last week presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich proposed granting legal status—but not citizenship—to some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. Many Republicans are now howling about “amnesty” while Democrats are sitting back and watching the infighting from a safe distance. Which party is likelier to benefit from this latest round of immigration politics?

Democrats would be happy to have Republican criticism kill Mr.
Gingrich’s idea. Liberals may advocate the maximalist position of full
citizenship rights for illegals, but they’re content with the status
quo. They know that keeping illegals in limbo works to the political
advantage of liberals and Democrats. Republicans ignore this at their
own peril.

Mr. Gingrich’s idea is crucially different from what was offered to
illegals under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That
program, unlike Mr. Gingrich’s proposal, provided a direct “path to
citizenship” for millions of undocumented immigrants who qualified.

At a time when cosmopolitan elites are devaluing citizenship,
conservatives in particular should appreciate the critical distinction
between citizenship and mere legal residency, a status that would not
afford the beneficiaries voting rights. If Mr. Gingrich’s critics have
any doubts about this, they should listen to those few on the left who
have already criticized the former House speaker for advocating a form
of “second-class citizenship.”

Liberal activists and Democratic Party leaders understand that
illegals are not voters and are therefore not well-situated to press
their claims. Neither are the relatives of illegals (about 80% of whom
are Latinos) who are citizens. Over the last few decades, Democrats and
especially liberal advocacy groups have gotten used to “representing”
constituents like these without being accountable to them, because they
are relatively quiescent and certainly not well-organized. This is the
beneficial status quo to which Democrats have grown accustomed.

Democrats plausibly assume that Latinos will generally vote for them
and don’t really have anywhere else to go—especially when conservatives
demand the mass deportation of illegals. Such calculations are certainly
reflected in the way that the Obama administration has managed to
completely avoid anything like the comprehensive immigration reform that
candidate Obama promised Latinos in 2008.

Undergirding the Democrats’ acceptance of the status quo is what no
politician dares to say: Being an illegal immigrant in contemporary
America is not as onerous as the pervasive rhetoric suggests. Even
George W. Bush missed this. Back when he was advocating for a way to
bring illegals “out of the shadows,” they were not only gainfully
employed but in many instances joining labor unions and securing
schooling for their kids, who then began demanding in-state tuition at
public universities.

In the middle of the last decade, illegals in most major cities
demonstrated visibly and loudly against the tougher enforcement measures
then being proposed in Congress. And although illegals have never been
eligible for Social Security numbers, with the help of the IRS they are
eligible for Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, which during
the real-estate boom allowed hundreds of thousands of them to purchase
their own homes.

But while life in America may generally be tolerable for most
illegals, their situation is hardly enviable and certainly not without
anxiety, especially given the persistent threat of deportation. Their
advocates understandably seek to dramatize their plight, and the
politics of this issue consequently get more and more hyped, especially
as the media focus on the inevitable horror stories.

Whatever the plight of individual
illegal immigrants, the problem of 11 million of them constitutes a
blemish on the body politic that taints us all—and one that certainly
won’t be healed by the draconian policies most Republican candidates
seem to advocate. Mr. Gingrich’s proposal, or something like it, could
actually address this genuine dilemma while acknowledging the legitimate
anxieties that many Americans have about illegal immigration.

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