National Review has it about right on the Gang of Eight’s immigration proposal. The “amnesty “absurdly includes people who aren’t even residents of the US. The internal enforcement mechanisms are too slow and their implementation should precede amnesty in any case. The Gang of Eight also deal includes a low-skill “guest worker” program that would increase the labor supply in those sectors of the economy where wages have been dropping for decades. Ramesh Ponnuru did a good job summing up what is wrong with guest worker programs:
One of the worst things about illegal immigration is that it creates a class of people who contribute their labor to this country but aren’t full participants in it and lack the rights and responsibilities of everyone else. A guest-worker program doesn’t solve this problem. It formalizes it…
Most people who work in the U.S. can quit their jobs without worrying that they’ll be ejected from the country after 60 days of unemployment. Temporary workers would have no such security. Most people can leave one industry for another. The temporary agricultural workers in the bill would have no such freedom. Some foreigners may choose this fate as better than their alternatives. It seems unfair, though, to ask Americans to compete with workers who will be more willing to put up with bad working conditions because of this artificially precarious situation.
And yet there are Republicans who are trying to make the Gang of Eight deal even worse. Texas Senator John Cornyn wants a larger guest worker program and the House of Representatives has a fifteen year “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants who get amnesty. It sometimes seems like Republicans are trying to maximize the proportion of American residents who are not eligible for American citizenship.
This is exactly the wrong way to go about it. If we want someone in our country, we should want them to become part of our country. If we are to have amnesty for illegal aliens who have longstanding ties to the US (and I believe we should), the amnesty should involve integrating them into the American nation as quickly and as completely as possible. If we are to recruit foreign workers to come to the Unites States, we should do so with the reasonable expectation that most will settle here with their families. They will live and work with us. Their children will be American citizens and go to our schools. We should expect that they will become part of the American polity.
The Republican National Committee’s election autopsy report said that Republicans had to support comprehensive immigration reform in order for Republicans to be able to compete for the Latino vote. There is some truth to that, but the current Republican establishment immigration policy is a perversion of what is true in the autopsy report. If Republicans want to be seen as welcoming to immigrants and more recent arrivals, they need to actually be welcoming toward the people they wish to allow to live in the United States. They won’t be seen as welcoming if they try to maximally defer citizenship for those who get amnesty. They won’t be seen as welcoming if they treat new immigrants as merely units of labor who face deportation if they get crosswise with their bosses. “We want immigrants working, but we just don’t want them voting” is a motto for employers trying to hold down wages but a lousy motto for a party trying to get votes (or that cares about civic health.)
The Republicans don’t have to become an open borders party to be a pro-immigrant party. Canada’s Conservative Party does well with Canada’s immigrant population while being pro-immigration enforcement and favoring a skills and language proficiency-based immigration policy. There are some lessons there if Republicans would just think beyond their most recent meeting with the lobbyists from the National Restaurant Association.
Wages for lower-education American workers have been falling for thirty years. These falling wages have coincided with increased family disruption, increased risks of intergenerational poverty and, and declining labor force participation. Increasing the labor supply in these sectors of the economy does not make sense. The US could get many benefits of immigration by switching to a skills and language-proficiency-based system like the one in Canada. The economy as a whole would benefit from higher-skill workers and maybe the biggest beneficiaries would be current low-education American citizens and noncitizen residents (many of whom are immigrants themselves.) It is possible to be both pro-immigration and pro-working-class. The Republicans might also be interested to know that such a policy would also be popular with the American people. That might be of interest to a party that just lost twenty-five out of thirty-three Senate races and lost the presidential election by almost five million votes despite hundreds of millions of dollars donated to Republican-leaning Super PACs. The Republicans have to decide whether they want to maximize their vote totals or maximize the number of attaboys they get from business lobbyists and libertarian ideologues.
This is not just about immigration. Republicans can choose to be the party of high-earner tax cuts and guest worker programs or they can choose to be the party of a skills-oriented immigration system, a pro-family and pro-growth tax code, and market-oriented health care security. They can choose to be the party that tries to use policy to increase the disposable income of working families within a pro-growth and limited government framework, or they can choose to be the party that prioritizes grinding down the wages of those at the lower end of the income distribution.
Whatever happens, the Republicans will likely remain the party of relatively lower taxes, lower spending and lower regulation. The spending and tax commitments of the Democrats mean that the Republicans will have room to maneuver in addressing the concerns of working and middle-class Americans. Republicans would have a better chance of winning more elections and implementing their lower tax, lower spending and lower regulation policies if they were also a middle and working-class populist party. The risk is that the Republican establishment will choose to be a political expression of the will to power of the Chamber of Commerce, while making some election year gestures toward other sectors of the electorate. That would be a disaster for limited government politics.