Among conservatives, there is, quite obviously, disagreement on how comprehensive immigration reform fits into a forward-looking agenda. Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are certain this is a zero risk game — newcomers will push out lower- and middle-class workers, thereby harming the same people Republicans are trying to help with the rest of their agenda. Proponents of immigration reform as part of a pro-growth, pro-reform agenda look at things from a different economic and cultural perspective.
The economic data, to be generous to opponents, is mixed as to immigrants’ short-term effect on current workers. But wait. The workers in question are already here. And, in many cases, they are working off the books, undercutting the wages and working conditions of Americans born here. Unless we want to kick all of the illegal immigrants out, the damage, so to speak, has been done at the low end of the wage scale. And reform offers the realistic possibility for establishing border security and visa overstay solutions to control the flow of immigrants. Moreover, reams of data show that all classes benefit over the long term, revenues rise and the economic pie gets bigger — provided other policies are sound. (The great example of this is Texas.)
But in focusing purely on wage data, conservatives who oppose immigration reform depart, I think, from the spirit of modern conservative movement, exemplified by Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan. Conservatives who argue for limited government postulate that America is a diverse, boisterous place in which communal, nongovernmental action matters a great deal. Whenever possible we should encourage economic growth and vibrant social and cultural institutions, not top-down directives.
By definition, those who came here for a better life are risk-takers, visionaries and go-getters. In other words, they are believers in the American dream. We need immigrants, not simply wage earners. Whether it is food, fashion, design, architecture, popular culture, religiosity, start-up tech companies or innovative consumer products, they bring different perspectives and create new markets or new variations on existing themes. Their enthusiasm for the American experiment is infectious.
On this point, Russell Shorto’s “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America” is instructive. It documents the diverse polyglot that existed in our largest city from its earliest days. Unlike the Puritan colonies to the North (featuring witch-burning and religious uniformity), New York’s popular ethos was vibrant, tolerant, diverse and busy — and remains so. It was not just geography that made Manhattan the commercial center of the world, but also the people and the mind-set that took root there.
That phenomenon — the X factor, the additional spark and excitement when diverse people get thrown together — can be chaotic, messy and overwhelming. That is the American experience, not simply of the early 20th century but for more than 200 years. That might wig out a segment of anti-immigrant activists who seek cultural homogeneity and fear dilution of our Anglo roots, but the United States must constantly revive itself and draw the best, brightest and most dogged people in the world. We are not a nation defined by birth or nationality, but by adherence to a set of ideals, which immigrants often embrace with fervor.
Immigration, I would say to conservatives, makes the space between the individual and government bigger and more robust. That space, civil society, is where all conservatives want government to get out of the way and individuals to flourish in communities and associations of their choosing. If that space is monochrome that vision may work, but not as well and as robustly as it could. (If they want statistics, immigrants also have higher rates of marriage, childbearing and homeownership.) The question for conservatives then is not whether to include immigration reform in its agenda but what sort of immigration will rejuvenate America, expand the pie and enrich that space between government and individuals.
The policy argument for a pro-growth immigration system does not determine the timing, pace or nature of immigration reform. It is debatable whether immigration reform can get done this year or whether as a strategic matter it is better dealt with after the mid-terms. Instead of one comprehensive bill, the sides might agree to smaller nuggets on the “easier” issues including DREAMers, high-skilled visas and e-Verify. Reforms can be implemented in steps as Americans gain confidence the border is secured. Whatever we do with regard to those who have been here illegally for years and for the rest of the pieces of immigration policy, the aim should be to promote the pro-growth, pro-civil society aims of reformers. (As a practical matter, a country with a growing economy and enhanced upward mobility is more likely to embrace a generous immigration system.) There is perhaps more agreement than some of the heated rhetoric of a small sliver of anti-immigration reform advocates might suggest.
In an discussion that will be posted tomorrow with three key figures in the reform conservative movement, Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy makes the case, “Even most of those who are visible critics of illegal immigration don’t support mass deportation, while on the flip side those who are less worried about the effects of illegal immigration don’t tend to support blanket amnesty.” He observes, “For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, there’s a tendency to exaggerate the divisions that exist rather than focus on the things we share in common. It shouldn’t be all that difficult to settle on an immigration approach that most people on the right can support, if not in every respect than certainly as an improvement to the current system.” I heartily concur.
Republicans soon will need to decide: Do they want to be the people who holler to deport more people more rapidly or the people who want to replenish the reservoir of talents that make the United States culturally dynamic and economically robust? The latter vision is, I would argue, the only sustainable political message for a national party in a diverse society and, is the one most consistent with a comprehensive message of conservative reform. As noted above, tomorrow we’ll look at this and other aspects of the reform conservative agenda with some of its leading lights.