First, the House, if you recall, passed border security legislation to address the surge of illegal immigrant children along the border, but the Senate did nothing. If a GOP majority is in place, one can expect the Senate to take it up. That puts Senate Democrats in a precarious position. Do they oppose, in a time of national anxiety, necessary border measures? If they do or if the president were to veto the measures, the GOP would no doubt be delighted to run on the issue in 2016.
But it would be a mistake for Republicans to stop there. The major complaint of most anti-reform Republicans was that reform under the Senate bill did not guarantee a secure border before legalization kicked in. But if the Senate and House do pass tough border security measures, what would be the excuse for not proceeding with additional measures on issues such as H-1B visas for high-skilled workers or a humane solution for children brought here illegally?
Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute argues, “A recent Fusion poll of likely millennial voters aged 18 to 34 found that a plurality of 49% support the Democratic Party’s immigration-reform position while only 30% supported the GOP’s position. But when the poll asks whom the respondent blames for the failure of immigration reform, 12% blamed the Democrats, 15% blamed President Obama, and 30% blamed both political parties. Thirty-three percent blamed the Republicans in Congress. Looking at the Fusion poll, the best political hope for a GOP nativist strategy is that few voters notice it—hardly a ringing endorsement.” He reminds us that the Federalist Party, the Whigs and the “nativist American Party (also known as the Know-Nothings) quickly rose but then failed after a few successful elections. Anti-immigration positions may have helped those embattled parties for an election or two but in the long run they turned off more voters than they attracted.”
At a time when economic growth must be ignited, it is ultimately poor politics and poor policy to try to keep out those coming here to work hard and contribute to the American economy. It is not very Republican, for one thing. (“Lincoln divorced the new Republican Party from nativism. . . . Modern Republicans would be wise to learn from Lincoln’s inclusive vision. A nativist turn would rebuke the party’s principles while paying a high long-term political cost.”) And it ignores the growth potential derived from welcoming productive people. Yuval Levin and others have raised a legitimate concern about harm to low-wage workers, but this is one element that can be addressed, not a reason for refusing to act. Moreover, a successful compromise need not include citizenship. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and others make the case for nationalization instead, which allows millions to live here without fear of deportation.
Certainly, fiscal conservatives, pro-defense conservatives and social conservatives can find some common ground by fixing the border and then proceeding to other issues. Fiscal conservatives look for growth opportunities. National-security Republicans are legitimately worried about a border and visa system that lets people come in and remain who would do harm to Americans. And social conservatives, eager to support family values and promote civic virtues (including assimilation, which can be promoted in the legalization process), have something to gain as well.
If Republicans come up with a tough-minded policy that addresses a number of issues (e.g. workplace verification, border security, high-skilled workers) and Obama chooses to veto it, then the Democrats will have to explain why they did nothing when they controlled the White House and both houses and again when the other party took the initiative. Republicans have a unique chance to become the party of national security and legal, economically smart immigration policy. They shouldn’t blow it.