Commentary Magazine


Topic: immigration amnesty

What Conservative Principles Are Rubio’s Critics Defending?

It was probably inevitable. Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition trying to forge a compromise immigration reform proposal was bound to bring down on him the wrath of some conservatives. In some precincts of the right, opposition to any effort to deal with the reality of illegal immigration other than by fantasies of mass deportation has always tended to be put down as an “amnesty” plan. So it is hardly surprising that Rubio’s rollout of the bipartisan reform proposal that was crafted by the “gang” of four Democrats and four Republicans is generating considerable flack this week.

One example came from National Review editor Rich Lowry, whose Politico column takes the point of view that Rubio has been rolled by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. According to the thoughtful Lowry, Rubio was no match for the wily Schumer, who got the Florida Republican to buy into a lopsided deal that provided no real guarantees about border enforcement in exchange for a path to citizenship for the illegals. I think this underestimates Rubio as well as being a misreading of the bill. But the question running through my head as I read this and other ripostes to the push for the reform proposal isn’t so much about whether Rubio is as foolish as his detractors believe him to be or the argument about the details of the bill. My question is more basic: What conservative principle are Rubio’s critics defending here?

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It was probably inevitable. Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition trying to forge a compromise immigration reform proposal was bound to bring down on him the wrath of some conservatives. In some precincts of the right, opposition to any effort to deal with the reality of illegal immigration other than by fantasies of mass deportation has always tended to be put down as an “amnesty” plan. So it is hardly surprising that Rubio’s rollout of the bipartisan reform proposal that was crafted by the “gang” of four Democrats and four Republicans is generating considerable flack this week.

One example came from National Review editor Rich Lowry, whose Politico column takes the point of view that Rubio has been rolled by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. According to the thoughtful Lowry, Rubio was no match for the wily Schumer, who got the Florida Republican to buy into a lopsided deal that provided no real guarantees about border enforcement in exchange for a path to citizenship for the illegals. I think this underestimates Rubio as well as being a misreading of the bill. But the question running through my head as I read this and other ripostes to the push for the reform proposal isn’t so much about whether Rubio is as foolish as his detractors believe him to be or the argument about the details of the bill. My question is more basic: What conservative principle are Rubio’s critics defending here?

The answer from more reasonable opponents of immigration reform would probably be that they are defending the rule of law. They are profoundly offended by the idea that people who entered the country illegally would derive any benefit from crossing the border without permission. I have some sympathy for this point of view, as any country has a right and a duty to control its borders.

But while talking about defense of the rule of law is always a strong rhetorical platform, its application in the immigration debate is of limited usefulness. Saying that 11 million people shouldn’t have been able to enter the country illegally is fine, but it doesn’t give us much insight as to what to do with them now that they are here. Unless your position is that they must all be deported forthwith—a preposterous proposition that would require the employment of an enormous federal force whose existence would surely be contrary to the limited government views of these same conservatives—or a comical faith in “self deportation” (thank you, Mitt Romney), then what do these conservatives advocate other than building a wall that would run the length of the border between the United States and Mexico?

What Rubio and the other Republicans who have come to the sensible conclusion that these immigrants must be offered a path to legality have done is to face reality. Since these people—the overwhelming majority of whom came seeking work—are already here and aren’t going anywhere, it is obviously in the interests of the nation, as well as the federal exchequer, to get them into the system, paying more taxes and integrated into our national life, rather than operating in the shadows. Claiming that doing this violates the rule of law begs the question of whether maintaining the status quo or pretending that they can be deported is actually a defense of that principle. Dealing with the problem seems not only more reasonable but to be based in more respect for the law than the current situation.

Lowry and other conservatives who worry about whether this will be a repeat of the 1986 immigration bill, which promised better enforcement that was not delivered, have a point. But the idea that the measures about border security in the bill are nothing but airy promises is unfair. One can always argue that the government will treat the provisions in the bill as meaningless and that Congress will be too weak to insist on enforcement. But the stakes in this coalition are so high that a repeat of past failures in this manner seems less likely. Even the Democrats understand that the price of Republican support means real border security and this bill provides a template for that.

Opposition to immigration reform based on skepticism about Democratic trustworthiness may be understandable, but it does not strike me as a strong enough reason to stick with our current dysfunctional system. As Rubio has rightly said, the real amnesty plan is what we have now, for all intents and purposes. If conservatives are genuinely interested in addressing this problem then his idea is the best option they are ever likely to get.

Take away the rule-of-law argument and all you are left with is the sort of vague talk about the “end of America” you hear from some denizens of the fever swamps of the right as well as mutterings about Hispanics using amnesty to be on welfare or that the citizenship track is a plot to create more voters for the Democrats. Suffice it to say that this is an echo of 19th century Know Nothing-style immigrant bashing that has nothing to do with the cause of individual liberty or limited government that are the principles conservatives should be defending.

And that is exactly why Rubio and other leading Republicans need to step up and put an end to the idea that the conservative movement should be identified with such talk. Far from betraying conservatism, what Rubio and his colleagues are doing is an effort to solve a problem and strengthen our system of laws as well as free market principles. The debate on immigration should require the bill’s advocates to ensure that the border will be defended. But the idea that Rubio has been rolled or betrayed his party is pure bunk.

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Can the GOP Change on Immigration?

Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

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Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

There was a reason why, of all issues, the generally moderate Mitt Romney chose immigration as the one on which he would tack hardest to the right. In the one instance where his pose as a “severely conservative” Republican seemed to resonate, Romney attacked Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for their more liberal stands on the issue. The tactic worked, and even though Romney’s stand shifted a bit to the center as the campaign wore on — by accepting a modified version of the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for children brought here illegally but subsequently served in the U.S. military — until November 6, there was little sign that his party was ready to reassess its position.

In part, this reluctance to shift on immigration stems from the fact that a great many Americans believe the starting point to any discussion of the issue ought to be defense of the rule of law. Though some of those who obsess about the issue have blown the dangers that stem from immigration out of proportion and sound like 19th century “Know Nothings,” most Republican primary voters who care about the issue take a less extreme position. They believe the idea that the United States ought not to be able to control its borders is ludicrous. Treating law breaking in the form of illegal immigration as nothing more serious than a traffic ticket is offensive.

That’s why strong majorities of Americans polled on the topic generally support the controversial Arizona law that was both mischaracterized and condemned by President Obama in the second presidential debate. There’s nothing unconstitutional or unreasonable about inquiring about the immigration status of someone who has already been arrested on a different charge.

The plain fact is that the 12 million illegals that are already here are not going to be rounded up and deported. The government has neither the resources nor the will do so, and expectations that this will happen or, as Romney ludicrously put it, they will “self deport,” is detached from reality. Sooner or later the government will have to recognize their status and give them a path to legality, if not citizenship.

But anyone who thinks most Republican voters are prepared to tolerate a shift on the issue in the immediate future is dreaming. While there has always been a faction of leaders and thinkers that supported a strategy based on extending rights to the illegals, the last two elections show that this group is a minority within the GOP.

It should also be acknowledged that such efforts are fated to be largely futile. As Seth wrote, Hispanics are not going to be impressed if they think Republicans are cynically pandering to them. A large portion of the Jewish community continues to think of the GOP the same way their grandparents thought of it: as a vestige of an old country-club elite that harbors anti-Semitic attitudes. This may be an almost deranged and twisted view of reality, since contemporary Republicans tend to be even more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish concerns than Democrats, yet it nevertheless persists. But the bad taste from the harsh rhetoric on immigration from Republicans in recent years will not be washed away any more easily, even though a change of tune from some in the party on the issue won’t hurt. A possible Marco Rubio presidential candidacy in 2016 would also have an effect on the Hispanic vote.

But assuming that it will be easy for Republican leaders to accomplish this without a very strong pushback from their voters is unrealistic. As much as a GOP shift on amnesty would be smart politics and probably good public policy, it’s not likely to happen.

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