Commentary Magazine


The Immigration Imperative

Once again, two of the leading voices of American conservatism have joined forces to try to thwart any chance of immigration reform. Last July, William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review co-wrote an article that appeared in both publications denouncing the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. Their arguments won favor with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives and the bill never saw the light of day in the House for the rest of 2013. Nor will it resurface in 2014, but House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he intends to heed some of Kristol’s and Lowry’s admonitions about the perils of all such large-scale bills that few completely understand. As the New York Times reports, the GOP leadership will consider the Senate bill’s separate components and allow the House to debate and vote on measures for securing the borders, as well as those dealing with the status of the 11 million illegal aliens already in the country and other reforms to deal with a woefully dysfunctional system.

But Kristol and Lowry are once again fiercely resisting the prospect of any debate in the House, let alone a vote on immigration reform. Echoing the dismay of some among the party’s grass roots, Kristol and Lowry have advised Boehner and his colleagues literally to “do nothing” on the issue. They believe that even allowing bills to come to the floor will provoke a bitter, internecine battle among Republicans, one that will hamstring the party in its efforts to hold the House and win back the Senate this fall. Both say that the Obama administration can’t be trusted to secure the border and fear that even an “innocuous” measure passed by the House that fails to deal with the dilemma of the illegals should be avoided lest it be transformed into something truly dangerous in a conference with the Senate. They say there is no urgency to act on immigration and the GOP should shelve the entire topic to await another day after they have won in November, or perhaps even after until a Republican is installed in the White House.

While their fears of an intra-party battle on immigration and their cynicism about a lawless Obama administration are far from unreasonable, this time around Boehner should not follow their counsel. Despite the dangers to the party of a debate or a vote on the issue, the House has a responsibility to act. To fail to do so for either partisan reasons or an understandably jaundiced view of how the Obama administration would execute the law will not only haunt the GOP for years to come, but is also bad public policy.

Both Kristol and Lowry are on firm ground when they say the American people are not clamoring for immigration reform. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed immigration to be at the bottom of citizens’ priorities, well below more urgent concerns about the economy and a host of other issues. Indeed, only climate change ranked lower than immigration in terms of the urgency with which the issue judged by a majority of Americans.

They’re also right about the dangers of a GOP civil war over immigration. Many conservatives and Tea Partiers are adamant opponents of any legislation that would address the problem, even if it included, as did the Senate bill, tough new provisions for policing the border. Like National Review, they are appalled at the prospect of “amnesty” for the 11 million illegals even if they have no answer for resolving this dilemma other than impractical ideas such as more deportations. They are equally opposed to addressing the status of the children of illegals and treat DREAM act measures that seek to give these individuals—who, unlike their parents, have broken no law —a chance to attain citizenship.

Reform proponents rightly answer that de facto “amnesty” is in place already, with the government unable to force illegals to leave the country or to grant legal status to those who are honest, hard-working contributors to our society. Indeed, even a bill that stops short of a path to citizenship will face the unswerving opposition of many Republicans.

But just because it won’t be easy doesn’t mean immigration reform, even in a far more truncated form than the Senate bill, isn’t worth doing. Congress has an obligation to try to fix what is broken in our government and there is nothing more dysfunctional than an immigration system that doesn’t work well for those who obey our laws or those who came here illegally largely for economic reasons. Republicans have good reason not to trust the administration to secure the border. The responsible answer to those fears is to write a bill without loopholes and to use the power of the purse to ensure that the will of Congress is obeyed.

As for the political fallout from an immigration debate, Republicans will survive a dustup over the issue. The real fear here is not that anger over the discussion will tear Republicans apart in a manner that will prevent them from taking back the Senate but the fact that opponents of immigration reform know they will lose in the House just as they did in the Senate if a vote is held. As long as Republicans keep their promise to address border security first, there is no reason that Republicans should fear to act on the issue.

Of course, lurking behind this argument is the ongoing discussion about the Republican problems with Hispanic voters. Kristol and Lowry and other conservatives have rightly pointed out that any Republicans who believe passing immigration reform will attract large numbers of Hispanic voters are mistaken. There is no quid pro quo here and this largely liberal group is not going to be enticed into embracing the GOP because of this one issue.

But the problem here goes deeper than the Hispanic vote. As I’ve written before, Kristol and Lowry were wrong to assert last July that, in contrast to previous debates, this round has not been tarnished by anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric by GOP foes of immigration reform. The danger is not just that Republicans may be writing off Hispanic voters for the foreseeable future by tabling reform, but that they are in peril of being seen by the electorate as intolerant.

Republicans have an obligation to oppose Barack Obama’s big-government agenda. But wherever possible, they must do all they can to govern responsibly. There are aspects of immigration on which common ground can be established between both parties. Just saying no to immigration is an option for Republicans, but it is not a responsible one. Nor is it a choice that enhances their chances to win in 2014 or beyond.

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