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The Immigration Impasse

The Right’s division on immigration cuts across the usual lines: There are social conservatives, hawks, and economic conservatives in each camp. The division goes deep: It reflects differences about not only what policies the government should adopt but the moral convictions that should underlie them and the political strategies that should accompany them. One thing all of these camps share, however, is a lack of political realism.

One group of conservatives supports “comprehensive immigration reform” of the type that Bush sought. These conservatives — allied with most libertarians and liberals, ethnic lobbies, and business groups — believe that we have so much illegal immigration because we do not allow enough legal immigration to meet the economy’s needs. Their solution is a “temporary worker program” that would allow people to participate in America’s labor markets for a while and then require them to go home.

They also think that we should bring much of our existing illegal-immigrant population “out of the shadows” by creating a “path to citizenship” for those who learn English and meet other conditions. Enforcing the laws against new illegal entrants would then, they think, become a manageable task. They believe that the growth of the Hispanic vote makes support for this three-step plan — temporary work, a path to citizenship, and enforcement — politically necessary. Opposition, by antagonizing Hispanics, would make it impossible to create an enduring conservative majority. But if Hispanics did not suspect that Republicans were hostile to them, their work ethic and social conservatism would make them natural allies.

A second group of conservatives, which includes most House Republicans, calls the proposal for a path to citizenship an amnesty and rejects it as a reward for lawbreaking and an invitation for future illegal entrants. These conservatives believe that we should reduce the illegal-immigrant population by increasing our enforcement of immigration rules in the workplace and building a fence along the southern border. “Attrition through enforcement” is their motto. Some people in this group want the government to stop automatically granting citizenship to children born in the U.S. to illegal-immigrant parents. Many in this group also say they support legal immigration.

People in this second group tend to care less about the political ramifications of these policies than people in the first group, in part because to many of them immigration policy is more important than the future of the Republican party. But those who do wish the GOP well argue forcefully that support for amnesty would not help it. They claim that amnesty would instead enrage the party’s base and alienate some swing voters (notably working-class whites) while failing to win over Hispanics. On their view Hispanics, and particularly recent Hispanic immigrants, incline to the left because of a wide range of issues beyond immigration policy: They favor a high degree of government activism in the economy, for example, because of their relatively low incomes and education levels. Besides, amnesty critics add, many Hispanics themselves oppose illegal immigration.

A third group of conservatives sides with the second against the first, but goes further than either in wanting to see legal immigration reduced and changed as well. They fear that we are taking in more newcomers than we can absorb, especially given that so many of those newcomers are from the same place and that place is right next door. From their perspective our immigration policies import social problems — and Democratic voters. This group has few elected champions, but it does have some advocacy groups and think tanks on its side, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and NumbersUSA.

It also has potentially broad popular support. Gallup’s most recent poll on the question found 50 percent of the public favoring decreased levels of immigration, compared with 32 percent who wanted to keep current levels and 14 percent who wanted more. According to Gallup, the decreasers have been the largest bloc of opinion for almost the entirety of the last 35 years, and only a small minority of Americans has ever wanted higher immigration levels.

A characteristic flaw of the first group is naïveté. Supporters of “comprehensive reform” rarely explain how a temporary work program would be kept temporary. If temporary workers have children while on their U.S. sojourn, the federal government will have the unpalatable choice of breaking up the family, deporting children who are U.S. citizens, or winking at lawbreaking.

That comprehensivists might not have the stomach to enforce their own legal regime is an implication of the ferocious reaction to Arizona’s new law against illegal immigration. Many of the comprehensivist critics of that law, on the right as well as the left, have treated the demand that people here legally produce evidence proving it as intolerably oppressive and even fascistic. This type of criticism is incompatible with enforcement of immigration laws, period.

This squeamishness, along with the federal government’s track record on enforcement, is one reason that people who might otherwise be open to a path to citizenship think it would be a fiasco in practice. Without effective enforcement, more illegal entrants would come and wait until the next amnesty/offer of a path to citizenship. In any case, the comprehensivists’ political strategy underestimates the size and intensity of the opposition to their policy agenda, at least in today’s circumstances. Republicans cannot take the lead in enacting a policy that their rank-and-file members vehemently reject; and if the policy is enacted by Democrats, they and not Republicans will get the credit with Hispanics — whose natural conservatism is overestimated by comprehensivists on the right in the first place.

Indeed, the eagerness of conservative comprehensivists to create a large temporary labor force excluded from voting suggests that they themselves have some doubts about the latent conservative proclivities of low-skilled Hispanic immigrants. Liberal comprehensivists generally favor the temporary-work program only as a sop to their conservative allies; they would prefer a straightforward increase in legal immigration.

Finally, the argument that illegal immigration is the inevitable result of an undersupply of legal-immigrant labor is far more radical in its implications than the comprehensivists admit or, perhaps, realize. The demand for labor, like the demand for almost anything else, varies inversely with the price. So long as wage levels are significantly higher in the U.S. than in Mexico, immigrants will have an incentive to come here and employers will often find it in their interest to hire them. The argument, that is, pushes in the direction not just of higher legal immigration but of an integrated North American labor market. It is unlikely that Americans would favor that goal if it were put to a vote.

Yet the political dilemma is even sharper for the second two groups. The enactment of the comprehensivists’ agenda might weaken the Right politically by giving votes to more immigrants who are predisposed against it, but at least the policy could survive this effect. Many comprehensivists — the liberals among them — would be happy about this effect. But the second and third groups are found almost entirely on the Right. If their agenda weakens conservatives politically, that agenda will quickly be repealed or, more likely, not be enacted in the first place.

And building a sustainable majority for that agenda may be impossible. Republican opposition to amnesty and support for “enforcement only” appears to have cost the party some Hispanic support, and as a result at least some congressional races. Many conservatives overestimate how hostile the public at large is to an amnesty. The conservative group Resurgent Republic recently asked likely voters if they agreed that illegal immigrants should be allowed to earn citizenship or that creating a path to citizenship would be a mistake as a “reward for illegal behavior.” A 54 percent majority favored the path to citizenship. A campaign against the children of illegal immigrants — which is what a frontal attack on the principle of birthright citizenship would involve — is unlikely to garner more support for the restrictionists.

A recent Gallup poll found 64 percent of respondents either “very” or “somewhat” sympathetic to illegal immigrants. That finding suggests that at the very least the advocates of “enforcement only” ought to adjust their rhetoric, which has not reflected this sympathy and indeed has hardly even acknowledged its existence.

Perhaps all three camps should reconsider their positions as well. Amnesty has become the most polarizing issue in the immigration debate; supporters and opponents cannot even agree what to call it. For the supporters, providing a measure of legal security to poor and desperate people whom our society has tacitly invited here is a moral imperative. For the opponents, rewarding their lawbreaking is an injustice.

Neither of these competing claims is compelling. Illegal immigrants voluntarily came here amid shadows; bringing them out cannot be obligatory for the U.S. government regardless of the consequences. And while illegal immigrants’ lawbreaking is wrong, it is not a grave wrong. To the extent they acted to help their families there is something admirable in their actions. If there are circumstances in which amnesty would otherwise serve the country’s interest, we should not forswear it for fear of rewarding lawbreaking. Imposing a fine on illegal immigrants — and perhaps, as centrist immigration scholar Peter Skerry has suggested, permanently disqualifying them from citizenship — seems proportionate to the offense.

But now is not the time for that policy. Enacting a law that puts amnesty into effect, even if implementation of the amnesty is delayed for a few years, would attract more illegal immigration. If the pro-amnesty conservatives need to accept that it would be unwise to push for amnesty now, the anti-amnesty conservatives ought to entertain the possibility that at some point it would make sense.

Some thoughtful conservative restrictionists concede that once the illegal-immigrant population is shrunk to a manageable level, some path to legality could be put in place. But even they warn that openly discussing this possibility could act as a magnet. That risk seems small enough to be worth taking — especially if the alternative is a total opposition to amnesty that proves politically self-defeating.

Stepping up enforcement while deferring the question of amnesty is not a perfect solution to the dilemmas created by current immigration policy. It does not open the door to a reform of legal immigration, for example. But it would promote the most important goal of that reform, assimilation, by reducing the total inflow from Mexico. It would not end Hispanics’ objections to a policy that subjects illegal immigrants who have been here for years to the threat of deportation for an indefinite time period; but it might slightly soften those objections and make it easier to show that the policy is not based on racial hostility. And it would do justice to the public’s conflicting impulses.

The debate over amnesty has sometimes obscured the more important question of whom, and how many, we should let in. Amnesty is itself important primarily as it bears on that question. Conservatives, like others, have dug-in positions, with a few saying we need to pass a law that includes a path to citizenship at the same time we step up enforcement and many more saying we should not do it at all. The right time for amnesty is in between now and never.

– Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review, in whose Jun 7, 2010, issue this article first appeared.