The Gang of Eight is moving forward with legislation on comprehensive immigration reform. If you believe Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), they are very close to the end; if you think Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a more reliable source, they’ve got a way to go. I tend to think the road is rocky but not impossible.
Immigration reform opponents will include some odd bedfellows, as the Washington Examiner points out. It relates a press release from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that echoes the AFL-CIO’s arguments against a guest-worker program that is critical to any deal. (“Every American worker, union and non-union, is right to be concerned about a large guest worker program combined with a large amnesty of illegal workers. There is no doubt that such a plan will reduce Americans.”) But at least we know exactly where Sessions stands — opposed to immigration reform.
More troublesome to proponents of a comprehensive immigration bill are the antics we saw in 2007. Then, liberal Democrats, including the junior senator from Illinois, who ostensibly favored immigration reform used “poison pill” amendments to kill the bill at the behest of Big Labor and then blamed the GOP for being anti-immigrant. That is hypocrisy of the highest order. Conservatives who are trying in good faith to push for a deal are legitimately concerned that President Obama will act like Sen. Barack Obama in scuttling a deal.
Republicans are divided on immigration reform, and I would suggest the dividing line is not based on economics. After, all the arguments for immigration reform are conservative ones, as Grover Joseph Rees argues:
American conservatives generally believe that economic activity should be governed by contract rather than by status. We believe an economic system driven by competition among free individuals and enterprises is more likely to confer long-lasting benefits on everybody than a system in which government periodically designates winners and losers.
But the economic arguments for immigration are merely one aspect of a broader commitment to human freedom. American conservatives oppose racial quotas, redistributionist taxes and most other aspects of the nanny state not because we wish to hurt the intended beneficiaries of these policies, but because we believe the law should ensure equality of opportunity rather than attempt to guarantee preferred outcomes.
This is why libertarians generally favor immigration reform.
Law-and-order types also see the problem with the current system. (“We are now sending exactly the wrong message to prospective immigrants: Don’t even think about coming here legally, unless you are in one of the relatively narrow legal immigrant categories,” Rees writes. “But if you come here illegally, we probably won’t catch you. Both parts of this message need to be fixed: by enforcement that is thorough and effective without being mean, and by a far less restrictive legal immigration system.”) As Rubio puts it, our current system is de facto amnesty.
Among evangelicals, opinion is also shifting in favor of immigration reform, based on scriptural imperatives.
Then there are advocates of American exceptionalism and internationalists, who also see immigration reform as consistent with their broader vision. (“Ronald Reagan made clear in his final presidential address to the American people that in describing the United States as a ‘shining city on a hill,’ ” writes Rees, “he meant a place of refuge for freedom-loving people from around the world.”)
So what is the basis for opposition by the faction of conservative lawmakers who want to stop immigration reform? Some are purely pandering to what they perceive as the wants of the right-wing base, although there is plenty of evidence that they’ve misjudged voters. Some immigration advocates are defeatists on the political front and think in 12 or 14 years, once the pathway leads to citizenship, all these immigrants will vote Democratic. (Even without comprehensive immigration reform, the GOP is already losing the Hispanic and Asian vote overwhelmingly and therefore being aced out of competitive seats and the White House.)
But I think something else is very much at play here. There is on the right a generic feeling that America is becoming “something else,” a country different socially and culturally than the America of their childhoods. Whether they worry about a failure to assimilate or a cultural shift in the fabric of America, they seem perpetually on defense as the country morphs in new and unexpected ways. Liberals say this is simply racism, but I think the vast majority of immigration opponents aren’t bigots.
They are, however, entirely misguided about the essence of America, a country that is always changing and reinventing itself. Each generation is different than the last, and we are unmistakably becoming a more diverse society racially, socially and ethnically. Holding back the inevitable — and the desirable — evolution of America to accept new generations of citizens is foolhardy but understandable for those who feel economically challenged and ill at ease with modern American society.
The tie that binds us all together is not ethnicity or race but rather a set of ideals. Conservatives who venerate the Constitution should understand that and that its principles are applicable and embraceable by people who come from every corner of the globe.
In the immigration fight ahead there will be liberals who would like to undermine a deal. There will be law-and-order, evangelical, internationalist and libertarian-leaning conservative advocates who will try to push through a deal. Some of these, as with Rubio, have personal life stories that inform their judgment about the centrality of immigration to the American experience.
And there will be those who view reform as a threat to the GOP and endangering the essence of America. In fact, opposing immigration reform is becoming an acute danger to the GOP; immigration reform’s success will prove once again that the ideals contained in the Declaration and the Constitution are not for one time or one people but rather are universal and timeless. Now that would be a conservative accomplishment.