A New Conversation About Illegal Immigration
By Robert Loewen, President, Orange County Lincoln Club
Illegal immigration is among the most emotionally charged and divisive issues facing conservatives and Republicans. In election after election, especially in primaries, Republicans have used it as a wedge issue against fellow Republicans.
It’s such a difficult issue that most Republican strategists and elected officials who follow the polls say, ‘don’t even talk about it’; ‘just focus on jobs’. And I agree the economy should be front and center and Republicans should be focused on how to offer conservative solutions to restart private-sector job growth.
Still, we can’t afford to sweep the immigration issue under the rug. Not only because of the rising number of Latino voters, who are hungry for a solution that has eluded them under the current Administration, but because the problem of illegal immigration is destroying the economic and social fabric of our country. And Democrats are vulnerable on this issue. Conservatives have an opportunity to change the conversation about illegal immigration in a positive way that can improve our country while helping Republicans – without compromising conservative principles.
By advocating market-based solutions that incrementally replace our antiquated, union-backed immigration laws with a 21st-century system that pairs labor to business needs and results in stronger, safer borders. These tenants are at the heart of a three-point policy statement recently adopted by members of the Lincoln Club of Orange County.
In several major sectors of our economy, American businesses are caught in a dilemma. They have jobs that American citizens don’t want. For decades now, whether they’re farm jobs in the Central Valley, meat-packing jobs in the Inland Empire, or janitorial jobs in our big cities, rightly or wrongly, illegal immigrants have been filling a labor need that American workers do not. But because of our current laws, they are forced to fill that need on the underground market, making criminals out of employers and employees alike.
Yet, how has the federal government responded? Until the Obama Administration came to power, by looking the other way. Everyone – conservative or liberal – can see that the federal government has failed to secure our borders and effectively enforce immigration laws. But not looking the other way does not mean the current Administration is solving anything. Under President Obama deportations have hit record levels – nearly 400,000 over the past year – flying in the face of the left’s supposed sympathy for Latinos and amnesty.
After President Obama took office, the Democrats held super majorities in both the Senate and the House. They could have passed any law that suited them. What solutions did they offer on illegal immigration? They talked a lot about amnesty, but didn’t even vote on it, much less pass it. They talked about more border security, making fun of Republicans about moats and fences, but still the problems persist; we still have millions here illegally, not paying taxes but consuming billions in social services, and they still live every day in fear of being deported. In sum, after three years, President Obama solved nothing and deported many. Republicans can do better.
Fixing Antiquated Laws
America is a nation of laws. Conservatives are rightly outraged when people break those laws. It was understandable when Republicans in some states responded to the federal government’s failure to enforce immigration laws to protect the state’s citizens. But they have been paying a terrible political price for it as Democrats have labeled them anti-Latino and worse.
But what if our current immigration laws are inherently flawed? Our immigration system—the one that Republicans have been falling on their swords to enforce—was first established in the 1920s by a majority of Democrats in Congress at the urging of unions. The most significant amendments to this law, too, were enacted by Democrats mostly because unions wanted them to protect union jobs from foreign labor.
It’s no wonder that the current immigration system is broken. It is a system rooted in a protectionist, union-favoring philosophy in which federal bureaucrats distribute a small, fixed number of work visas to foreign workers primarily based on family ties, not based on the constantly changing economic needs of American businesses.
Add to that the red-tape and years-long process it takes to secure a work visa, and you can see why this antiquated system has led to the problem we have today – an estimated 11-20 million illegal immigrants who make up an underground labor market. It’s a system that criminalizes businesses and workers who have no significant alternatives. Rather than reforming these broken laws, Democrats exploit them for political gain by telling Latino voters they favor legalization, when in reality unions will fight any serious legalization plan fearing new workers will take away their own jobs and diminish their power. How do we know? Look at the President’s track record.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County recognizes that the immigration system is complex and that there are no easy solutions. We don’t believe in “comprehensive immigration reform,” which many of us equate to “amnesty.” We believe that no one who has entered this country illegally should be granted automatic citizenship, which carries with it the precious right to vote. We learned in 1986 that giving away automatic citizenship through amnesty just encourages more illegal border crossings in the future.
But we do believe that conservatives have a unique opportunity to lead on this issue by making market forces work for us, instead of trying to stifle them.
Free trade is a good example. Republicans support free trade, which promotes prosperity and creates jobs. Some of those jobs can best be filled through a guest-worker program, which extends temporary, legal work permits to immigrants who are then required to pay taxes and are a net benefit to our economy, compared to someone who enters illegally, doesn’t pay taxes, and is a drain on the economy. Improving the flow of legal immigration based on businesses’ demand would ease the flow of illegal immigration considerably, making border security easier and cheaper to manage.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County supports a common sense, three-pronged approach to immigration reform that includes, first, additional border security measures; secondly, it features the creation of a guest-worker program that allows illegal immigrants and foreign workers to get temporary work permits if they meet certain criteria, such as providing proof of employment, passing a criminal background check, paying fees, and requiring them to pay income taxes; and thirdly, it calls for a streamlined, high-tech system for employers and authorities to enforce the program.
One of the key differences between this proposal and others is that such workers would not be given a pathway to citizenship. In other words, we do not propose any changes in the current laws on citizenship—only a change in the law on how to become a legal worker. The only path to citizenship for anyone would be existing law, which requires these workers to get in line with everyone else. Some suggest that this could create two classes of residents, but we already have that—one legal and one illegal. Our proposal creates a single class—all legal—which is a big improvement for now. Immigration is a big issue, and our proposal doesn’t try to fix all that is wrong. But if we can encourage our legislators to change the law in this way, it would fix a significant part of the problem.
Another key difference is the use of technology. Guest workers would be issued a computerized security card that enables law enforcement and employers to instantly check the worker’s permit status. Creating such a system would separate those workers who are seeking a better life for their families from criminals, terrorists, and the drug cartels, and therefore focus border security resources on those who enter the U.S. illegally for criminal activity. Under this system, employers could easily distinguish those who are here legally from those who are not so there would be no excuse for an employer to hire an illegal worker.
A New Conversation
For far too long, Democrats have successfully perpetuated the myth that Republicans are anti-immigrant and even racist because they support more border security and enforcement. These are the same Democrats who oppose free trade and guest-worker programs because their union masters are against them. They are the same Democrats who did nothing to reform immigration policies when they held power in Washington.
But all too often, Republicans have fallen into their trap by either remaining silent about real solutions and/or adopting harsh rhetoric and aggressive measures to enforce flawed immigration laws that were enacted by Democrats in the first place. Our silence gives Democrats the opportunity to put Republicans into an anti-immigrant box—which Democrats quickly label “anti-Latino”. The harsh rhetoric in our primaries gives Democrats an opening to paint Republicans as uncaring and out of touch with Latinos.
Hopefully, the Lincoln Club’s plan will not only help Republicans break out of the box that Democrats keep trying to put them in, but help them answer some yet unanswered questions — what do we do about those here illegally and those businesses who want to hire them? – with practical, incremental, free-market solutions that expand opportunities for workers and businesses, not limit them.
[Publisher's Note: We welcome comments on this commentary below. If you do not have a commenting account with us, it takes only a moment to get approved. By policy we do not support unattributed (anonymous) comments... Flash]