Ross Douthat: GOP changes its course on immigration reform

commentBy ROSS DOUTHATFebruary 7, 2014 

The debate over immigration reform, rekindled by House Republican leaders, bears a superficial resemblance to last fall's debate over the government shutdown.

Again, you have establishment Republicans transparently eager to cut a deal with the White House and a populist wing that doesn't want to let them do it. Again, you have Republican business groups and donors wringing their hands over the intransigence of the base, while talk-radio hosts and right-wing bloggers warn against an imminent inside-the-Beltway sellout. Again, you have a bill that could pass the House tomorrow -- but only if John Boehner were willing to live with having mostly Democrats voting for it.

Except there's one big difference: This time, the populists are right.

They're right about the policy, which remains a mess in every new compromise that's floated -- offering "solutions" that are unlikely to be permanent, enforcement provisions that probably won't take effect, and favoring special interests, right and left, over the interests of the citizenry at large.

A reasonable compromise, for instance, would condition amnesty for illegal immigrants on substantial new enforcement measures, to ensure that this mass legalization would be the last. But the bills under discussion almost always offer some form of legal status before enforcement takes effect, which promises a replay of the Reagan-era amnesty's failure to ever deliver the limits on future immigration that it promised.

A reasonable immigration compromise would also privilege high-skilled immigration over low-skilled immigration, given the unemployment crisis among low-skilled native workers and the larger social crisis that threatens to slow assimilation and upward mobility alike. But the House leadership seems to favor an approach that would create a permanent noncitizen class of low-wage workers and expand guest-worker programs -- a recipe for looser labor markets, continued wage stagnation and fewer jobs for the existing unemployed.

So immigration policy is problematic on the merits -- and then it's politically problematic for Republicans as well. Immigration ranks 16th on the public's list of priorities, according to the latest Pew numbers, so it's difficult to see how making this the signature example of a new, solutions-oriented GOP is going to help the party in the near term. Whereas it's much easier to see how it helps the Democrats: If a bill passes, it will do so with heavy Democratic support, hand President Barack Obama a policy victory at a time when he looks like a lame duck, and demoralize the right along the way.

Admittedly, a big push for immigration reform would not be as straightforwardly idiotic as shutting down the government without clear goals or plausible demands. But it would probably have some of the same political effects: It would divide the GOP, perplex the public and let the White House reap immediate political benefits no matter how the push turned out.

So why are Republican leaders flirting with the idea? In part for principled reasons -- libertarianism, pro-business sentiment and "compassionate conservative" impulses all align to make comprehensive reform seem like an obvious good to many figures in the party, and to obscure its downsides and its risks.

But it's also hard for GOP elites to let go of the idea that there's a simple, one-fell-swoop solution to their electoral difficulties. The entire post-2012 immigration reform push was born out of this hope -- that a single policy shift could deliver the Hispanic vote, save the party from its demographic crisis, and (perhaps most important) make other reforms and innovations unnecessary.

This conceit was always a fond delusion, not least because most Hispanics are not single-issue voters, and their leftward tilt has always been related to broader socioeconomic concerns. So with them, as with most Americans, the problem for Republicans in 2008 and 2012 was much bigger than the immigration issue: It was a platform designed for the challenges of 1980, and rhetoric that seemed to write off half the country as layabouts and moochers. And any solution for the party, in 2016 and beyond, would have to offer much more than the same old Reagan-era script with an amnesty stapled at the bottom.

Fortunately for the Republican future, we're finally beginning to see the right's politicians reckon with this reality, and throw themselves into the real work of reform. Indeed, this is happening more quickly than I once expected: In just the last week alone, recent Republican forays on tax reform, poverty and prisons have been joined by a plausible health care alternative and baby steps toward a proposal to help the long-term uninsured.

But that, too, is part of what makes the leadership's immigration fixation so perverse. For the first time since the Bush presidency, high-profile Republicans are showing an interest in policy ideas that are fresh, politically savvy and well-suited to the current economic malaise. Which makes it exactly the wrong time for the party to throw itself into a furious debate over an idea that is none of the above.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist.

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