Over at NRO, Richard Nadler has gotten into an exchange with a whole bunch of people on the subject of whether Republicans are hurting themselves with their immigration stance. Nadler says yes, his interlocutors say no. For the purposes of this post, I’ll confine myself to Ramesh Ponnuru’s response since he comes closest to my own views: he basically agrees with Nadler that the GOP’s immigration position has to some extent hurt the party among Hispanic voters but is closer to Nadler’s critics as to what constitutes sound immigration policy.
We’re in particular agreement on two points. On policy, Ponnuru writes: “My principal concern about immigration is the extent to which immigrants assimilate culturally and economically. Toward that end I favor a reduced level and more varied sources of immigration.” From a political and moral perspective, he writes: “Republicans also should be careful not to let hostility to illegal immigration come across as hostility to illegal immigrants as people, let alone to Hispanics generally.” Unforuntately, crafting a political message that takes both points seriously is a lot easier said than done.
Ponnuru criticizes restrictionists for pointing out that most of the victorious Democrats in 2006 and 2008 claimed to support enforcement and oppose amnesty: “But most advocates of ‘comprehensive reform’ say exactly the same things. President Bush said that he favored enforcement and opposed amnesty, and so did Senator McCain. Opponents of that reform never take those statements at face value – except when they are trying to spin away political defeats.”
But the fact that virtually nobody outside of safe liberal districts openly campaigns in favor of amnesty or against immigration enforcement is not politically meaningless. It suggests that the pro-amnesty, or if you prefer “comprehensive reform,” position carries its own political costs. Activist restrictionists don’t take the pro-enforcement rhetoric of pro-amnesty politicians at face value, but a lot of voters do. Restrictionist sentiment has proven fairly easy to co-opt; harder-core restrictionists have found themselves vulnerable to triangulation by politicians whose rhetoric better represents the nuances of public opinion on immigration.
Almost nobody of consequence advocates mass deportation. Perhaps restrictionists would benefit from using rhetoric that makes that clearer. But immigration enforcement isn’t painless: to the employers, friends, and families of any illegal immigrant denied entry or asked to leave the United States, the act of enforcing the law is going to look a lot like a mass deportation. Ponnuru suggests we should worry less about the illegal immigrants who are already here than those who would join them. But the illegal population may be as large as 20 million people. If we do nothing to reduce that number, it will take some time for a reduction in illegal entries to catch up. Second, up to 40 percent of that illegal population came in legally and overstayed their visas. So any serious effort to reduce illegal immigration is going to require some level of interior enforcement. Interior enforcement is not painless or politically cost-free.
Conservatives are thus caught between a rock and a hard place. If Nadler is right, and I think he is, immigration enforcement has the potential to alienate the country’s fastest-growing demographic group and push it to the left. But if the restrictionists are right, and I think they are, failure to enact sound immigration policies that better integrate newcomers will also have the effect of pushing the country to the left. It’s not an easy dilemma to resolve.
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