Yesterday in Florida, Fred Thompson announced his immigration reform plan. The plan is in some ways fairly run-of-the-mill in this Republican primary season: Thompson opposes amnesty, wants tougher enforcement of existing laws, calls for cracking down on employers, and wants to tighten the rules governing legal immigration without reducing the number of legal immigrants. But Thompson’s approach does stand out in a few ways, and also highlights a potential Republican advantage on immigration that the Democrats have yet to notice.
More than most other Republicans this year, Thompson has addressed the state of legal immigration in his plan, as well as the quandary of contending with the millions of immigrants now here illegally. He calls, for instance, for the narrowing of family immigration categories, by permitting new Americans to obtain immigration status only for their spouses and minor children—not, as is currently the case, for siblings, parents, and adult children. This would cut down dramatically on so-called “chain immigration,” which accounts for an enormous portion of legal immigrants to America, and distorts the aims of our immigration system. (I discussed this problem at some length, and called for the same kind of reform, in the May issue of COMMENTARY.)
Thompson also calls for an end to the utterly senseless visa lottery program, and for a greater preference for labor-based immigration—both of which make good sense (and which I also discussed in that same essay).
Other than John McCain, who is identified with a far more liberal approach to immigration policy, most of Thompson’s opponents would find little to disagree with in the plan, and a number of them have proposed very similar steps. But the Democrats, on the other hand, are all quite some distance away on this issue.
For the past several years, immigration has been a painful subject for Republicans: President Bush has advocated an approach that leans toward amnesty, which the conservative base of the party opposes with a passion. Democrats have enjoyed the show, and suffered little on immigration. But voters, according to most recent polls on the subject, are actually closer to the Republican base than to the President and the Democrats on immigration. In the build-up to next year’s election, as Bush’s view becomes less of a problem for Republicans and their candidates’ more conservative approach becomes the new standard, Democrats may find themselves suddenly on the losing end of a very hot election year issue, and unprepared for the consequences.
Republicans will need to work overtime to avoid giving the impression that their objection to illegal immigration is grounded in opposition to all immigration, or worse, in hostility to Hispanics. But if Republicans can make this clear, and find a conservative balance on immigration—focused on controlling the border, reforming the legal immigration regime, and welcoming immigrants that play by the rules—the issue could well be a profound and unexpected source of strength in key states next November.