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The Perils of Reform

Our immigration system can be fixed, but Republicans should aim for better policies, not better pandering

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Put vote-getting ahead of policy. Then conflate and aggregate. That’s all you have to do to make a mess of immigration reform. Which is what our political class seems determined to do. 

Marco Antonio Rubio

Although the details of reform legislation have yet to be worked out, the broad contours of the deal can be seen through the rhetorical haze that passes for political debate. Illegal immigrants will be granted probationary legal residence and the right to work if they have avoided any crimes other than crossing our border without permission. This amnesty will be followed by permanent residence, the first step on a path to citizenship, but only after a board of governors, state attorneys general, and notables from border states testifies that the border has been secured. These probationary guests are to be denied access to Obamacare and other public assistance and will eventually have to pay back taxes when applying for citizenship.

There you have it. Sounds reasonable enough, with great appeal to the generosity of most Americans, many acquainted with some of these immigrants, whom they know to be hardworking. And to politicians in a bidding war for the votes of these citizens-to-be and, until then, of American citizens of Hispanic origin.

There is no denying that current policy needs fixing: As John McCain once told an insistent deport-them-all advocate at a small meeting in our living room, “Lady, we don’t have 11 million pairs of handcuffs in America.” Not only is mass deportation infeasible, it would be inhumane. More inhumane even than leaving 11 million people​—​12 million according to Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or is it 15 million as many of my Colorado neighbors contend?​—​to struggle along in some zone between illegality and de facto acceptance. As the president is fond of saying, “There is work to be done.”

This is no easy chore. Emotions run high, not only among the illegal immigrants but among politicians who are in a bidding war for the favor of a voting bloc that is large and growing larger. So far, game, set, and match to the Democrats, who corralled some 70 percent of Latino voters in the recent elections, in part with promises of college and work permits for their kids​—​no legislation necessary, as the president exercised “prosecutorial discretion” on a massive scale. Now, a frightened batch of Republicans who once took a dim view of illegal border-crossing has entered the bidding in the hope of wooing this bloc to their banner.

Why they think this is possible is difficult to understand. Yes, many of these largely Hispanic illegal immigrants are socially conservative​—​they attend church, buy homes, start small businesses, and work hard, with over 90 percent of adult men in the labor market according to Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, economists at the Dallas Fed and Agnes Scott College, respectively. Those characteristics, argue conservative analysts in a display of the triumph of hope over experience, make them natural conservative voters. Alas, not so. There is another group that works hard, starts businesses, and should find the don’t-overtax-the-rich mantra of Republicans attractive: Jews. But they identify with the underdog, even now, and see WASPy Republicans as less likely to understand them. Why Republicans think illegal immigrants, having trod the winding path to citizenship, will be any easier pickings than Jewish voters, I don’t know. Surely, a better strategy than entering a bidding match against masters of that art would be to support sensible policies and compete for the great mass of voters on the basis of superior policymaking rather than superior pandering.

That requires avoiding the twin perils of conflation and aggregation. Start with the error of conflating the need to do something about the status of illegals with providing them a path to citizenship. Many people who understand the desirability of giving these illegals some sort of stable life don’t understand why that goal requires a path to citizenship for people who have jumped the queue. Granting legal status to these millions so that they might enjoy a more decent existence is one thing. Granting them the right to vote and to participate in the determination of the policies, domestic and foreign, of a nation they have entered illegally is quite another. Those who arrived as children, illegally but involuntarily, have a reasonable claim to more generous treatment. If recollection serves there is something in our tradition about not visiting the sins of the fathers on their sons. Arguably, creating a path to citizenship for this second generation is not a reward for illegal behavior, as it would be in the case of their parents. And, unlike their parents, this group will be proficient in the English language, as we define proficiency these days.

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