Yuval Levin, who has been at the forefront of the reform conservative movement, together with Reihan Salam makes an appeal for immigration reform that he hopes will win broader support on the right and respond to real concerns about the impact of immigration on low-skilled workers.


U.S. Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants after a foot chase on July 25 near Falfurrias, Tex. (John Moore/Getty Images)

House immigration reformers, quite rightly in our view, have emphasized a border-first reform plan that also draws the line at legalization, with substantial penalties and conditions, for those here illegally. Given the change in the immigration debate landscape, such a position with no citizenship element would, I strongly suspect, be acceptable to a great number of proponents of even more generous immigration reform bills. But Levin and Salam add a component they hope will break the logjam on the right:

To summarize, this package of reforms would consist of legalization without a path to citizenship for those here illegally, and a gradual rebalancing of legal immigration toward higher-skilled workers and away from extended-family unification, temporary workers, and lower-skilled immigrants. It would offer a more plausible resolution of the illegal-immigration question than the current preferences of either the cosmopolitans or the populists, and it would provide a legal-immigration system resembling those of immigration-friendly and economically developed countries such as Canada and Australia.

I’ve been a contrarian on the border crisis since I think it compels all sides to look at a border-security-first option that has been the bottom-line concern for many immigration reform components. In this regard, a candidate who takes border control seriously will engender confidence on the right and allow, after security measures are implemented, other parts of reform to proceed.

Our own view is that the adverse impact of immigration on low-skilled workers has been exaggerated, and there is some compelling literature suggesting that the adverse impact is temporary and limited to high school dropouts, a group that has many more compelling problems than competition from foreign workers. Moreover, demographically the country will face a low-skilled worker shortage in years ahead. And finally, an agricultural guest worker program akin to the 1950s and ’60s Bracero program is a good check against illegal immigration since workers can come here for work and then return home.

All that said, if for political reasons the immigration logjam can be defused by restricting low-skilled immigration, it would be more than worth it in our view. (Yes, one compromises when the goal is desirable!) The economic gains to be derived from the immigration of high-skilled workers, the security benefits from border control and the political resolution of a destructive and at times nasty political debate weigh in favor of such a compromise, even though in our view it is not as a policy matter essential. While high-tech employers favor immigration reform, the urgency is for the high-end, not low-skilled workers (e.g. Apple needs engineers, not janitors), so such a deal would find favor with them as well.

The problem, however, may be more acute and not immediately resolvable. There is a faction of the GOP including Senate hard-liners and House backbenchers, egged on by right-wing talk radio and anti-immigrant groups (who are not merely opposed to illegal immigration), who pine for deportation. They are a minority, and I have repeatedly provided polling to show they are out of step with the country and even with the GOP primary electorate. But they are loud, and they cowed the House leadership. Will they go along with a deal such as the one outlined above or similar versions put forth by House conservatives? Probably not.

This means that at some point (not before the midterms and maybe not before a new president) political courage — what a concept! — will be needed to move ahead despite these voices. Some people don’t want a solution to immigration, and others think that their popularity depends on leading the charge against any reasoned resolution. That’s politics. But no reform (welfare reform, tax reform) gets done by unanimity. If a modest reform bill along the lines we and others have been suggesting can get support from a good chunk of the GOP members of Congress and please voters as a whole, then a resolute president and congressional leaders can pass a reform bill.

I remain a pessimist in the short-term and an optimist in the mid- to long-term. Proponents of more generous immigration reform probably will be willing to curtail their ambitions, so we will have to hope that skeptics of immigration reform who are operating in good faith with a modicum of political courage can get the job done.

 

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.