The Magazine

The Wages of Immigration

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The political case is that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and their only hope is to win the fast-growing Latino bloc. The problem here is lack of context. There are only three states where comprehensive immigration reform might directly affect Republicans’ prospects in the near term: Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Arizona and Texas are solidly Republican; California is solidly Democratic; and the bulk of the Latino vote in Florida is Puerto Rican or Cuban, two groups who are mostly already citizens. 

But what happens if the Republican party slackens in its commitment to protecting wages and employment? Several decades ago, the GOP began winning the white working class in the South, and more recently it has done so in the border states (Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia). Yet its advance in the Midwest has stalled. Ohio remains less than a sure thing, even though its demographics have changed little. Pennsylvania and Minnesota are creeping closer to the Republican party, but have not yet flipped. Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin remain frustratingly elusive. 

These are all states where Republicans regularly win statewide, yet lose presidential contests, in part because Democrats successfully tag GOP nominees as heartless plutocrats. The only way for the GOP to shatter this image is through an explicit and relentless commitment to pocket-book issues of concern to average Americans. A comprehensive immigration bill that lowers wages is a giant step in the wrong direction. 

The cost-benefit calculus is simple. If Mitt Romney had won the Southwest, he still would have lost the election handily in 2012. If, on the other hand, he had swept the Rust Belt, he would have won by the same margin in the Electoral College that George W. Bush did in 2004. The Latino vote might be the fastest growing in the country, but Republican victory for the foreseeable future depends on carrying the Rust Belt. 

Republicans, moreover, if they ignore the harm to workers from immigration reform, will be missing an opportunity to turn the tables on the Democrats. 

For over a generation, Democrats have supported wage-suppressing policies demanded by rent-seeking unions, the environmentalist left, and the consumer rights movement, while still parading as the party of the people. And on immigration reform, the Democrats are kowtowing to ethnic pressure groups while harming the average worker. 

This might explain why Democrats insist on bipartisanship now in particular. They were happy to pass financial reform legislation, health care, and a massive stimulus basically on party line votes. Immigration reform is one of just two salient issues where they’ve insisted on reaching across the aisle. The other was the Bush tax cuts. Not wanting to be cast as the party of tax hikes, the Democrats sought political cover on that issue. Similarly now, Democrats want to legalize new potential voters, but not at the expense of lowering wages and increasing unemployment, especially in the midst of the longest economic stagnation in generations. Enter the Republican party: Bring in the GOP to neutralize the wage issue, then reap the benefits down the line from the new voters. 

In 1960, Barry Goldwater blasted the policies of Dwight Eisenhower as a “dime store New Deal.” This was an exaggeration, but Goldwater was on to something. The Republican party did not enjoy enduring successes until Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, when the party articulated a compelling alternative to New Deal/Great Society liberalism. So it goes with immigration reform. Offering a “lite” version of the Democratic proposal is poor political strategy, for the party will always be outbid. By contrast, offering a robust critique and a sensible alternative is the proven way to turn the party’s fortunes around. 

On immigration reform, far from echoing Democratic claims, Republicans should mount a vigorous attack that spotlights the negative effects the Senate bill would have on the economic stability of the working class.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers