What are our priorities for immigration? On this issue, the American right is divided between elites and populists. But neither group has a plan for an immigration strategy focused on civic equality and economic mobility.
The elite right includes the business lobbies and (unfortunately) virtually all of the plausible 2016 Republican presidential candidates. They favor non-enforcement of immigration law and legalization of unauthorized immigrants—in that order.
There have been two recent attempts at amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. The first was by President George W. Bush in 2006-2007 and the second by President Obama (and his Republican allies on this issue such as John McCain and Marco Rubio) in 2013-2014. They offered superficial concessions on border security (most of them conveniently to take effect—or not take effect—after legalization) while expanding low-skill guest worker programs.
But they did not make legalization conditional on the prior implementation of universal employment verification and a visa tracking system. Such a policy might have limited the flow of future immigration to something like what the law allows, and this was unacceptable to the elite right. The result is that the unauthorized immigrant population is still in the shadows after popular opposition doomed both recent attempts at amnesty. When we look at what the most ardent supporters of amnesty want, we get a better sense of what they truly value. They would rather see every unauthorized immigrant die of old age without gaining legal status than risk effective enforcement of our immigration laws.
The other side—the populist right—has its own problems on immigration. It opposes legalization and supports immigration enforcement but, in practice, favors the first over the second. The populist right's immigration coalition is only activated in response to proposals for amnesty and expanded low-skill immigration. The result is that this coalition can only win negative victories and extend the status quo.
The populist right also faces asymmetric political risk. As things stand, the elite right has to win only once in order to get its preferred combination of upfront amnesty, future immigration non-enforcement, and expanded guest-worker programs. The populist right has to win every time simply to avoid losing.
The elite right claims the mantle of realism because it argues (correctly) that the U.S. is not going to adopt a policy of mass deportation for long-established unauthorized immigrants. Also, it reasons, these immigrants are unlikely to “self-deport”—especially since many of them are in families that include American citizens.
But how realistic is it to support low-skill guest worker programs and to leave the door open for future waves of illegal immigration? We are almost six years into our economic recovery and the unemployment rate for our lowest-skill workers is still 8.4 percent, while the labor force participation rate for that population is 46.3 percent. In what world is it realistic to look at this situation and to conclude that America has too few low-skill workers? Marco Rubio has (correctly) proposed a wage subsidy for low-income workers. To turn around and propose immigration policies to increase the labor supply in the sector when unemployment is highest is crazy rather than realist.
The populist right ought to act as genuine realists and restrict future low-skill immigration. If (when the economy improves even more) the construction and hospitality industries have trouble getting labor, they can hire from our current population (both the native and the foreign-born) rather than bring in guest workers. They might have to pay more, but it is no tragedy for our current population of low-skill workers to see larger wage gains during the good times. They certainly see more than enough unemployment during economic downturns.
The populist right should also be the real integrationists. That means supporting and implementing an enforcement regime that operates on the rule that those who live in America are welcomed as future Americans. No more illegal immigrants in the shadows. No guest workers to be treated as flesh automatons—valued for their labor but never as civic equals. An integrationist strategy also means that, as internal enforcement is implemented, much of our population of long-established unauthorized immigrants is legalized not simply as workers, but also as future American citizens.
Populist conservatives need to focus on the positive and play the long game. While opposing an upfront amnesty, they should argue that a conditional amnesty could be part of a broader immigration agenda that favors the interests of current American workers—both the native and the foreign born.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.