People in the Republican establishment have been suggesting that conservatives can either try to appeal to working-class whites by supporting limits to future immigration levels, or they can try to appeal to Hispanics by seeking to increase future immigration levels. The truth is that conservatives have never had to make this choice. In 2012, Republicans chose to alienate both working-class whites and Hispanics. In the future, conservatives should try to appeal to both groups by focusing on the economic priorities of those groups rather than ethnic gamesmanship.
In the 2012 campaign, Romney's combination of economic priorities and immigration messaging proved especially toxic. On immigration, Romney advocated no amnesty and hoped that current unauthorized immigrants would self-deport. For Hispanics (and possibly even for Asians—among whom Romney did even worse than among Hispanics), the message was that Romney’s love for business owners was exceeded only by contempt for immigrants (legal and illegal).
The Republican establishment continues to support an immigration reform that would increase future immigration levels, especially low-skilled immigration. This approach has several minor political drawbacks. The first is that the vast majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents do not want future immigration levels increased. They would prefer that future immigration levels either stay the same or go down—increasing future immigration is the least popular option. It is also the case that, according to opinion polls, Democrats and Republicans would prefer that future immigration policies favor skills and English proficiency. In their zeal to do the bidding of the business interests, the Republican establishment has chosen an immigration strategy that unites the American public across party lines against the Washington lobbying and consultant classes.
There is an alternative to both Romney’s and the GOP establishment’s immigration strategies. We should focus on the priorities and lives of the workers (both native and foreign-born) who are already here. Allowing higher levels of low-skill immigration reduces the wages of our current low-skill workers and hurts them economically. Some find the negative effect to be small, while others find the effect to be slightly larger. But there is less dispute that future low-skill immigration reduces the wages of current low-skill foreign-born workers. Why should we be advocating policies that reduce the wages of our poorest workers (both the foreign- and native-born)?
Our lowest skill workers already have a relatively low labor force participation rate and high unemployment even six years into the economic recovery. It makes much more sense for future immigration to be channeled into sectors where the unemployment rate is 2.5 percent rather than 8.4 percent.
But that isn't nearly enough. You cannot be pro-working-class just by being against future low-skill immigration. You can't favor repealing Obamacare and then leave the millions who get health insurance through the Medicaid expansion and exchange subsidies to scramble or go without health insurance. Working-class whites (who might not like Obama, but who worry about what would happen to their insurance status with a layoff) won't buy it. Hispanics (and—for reasons of residence patterns—even more affluent Hispanics are more likely to have low-income people within their social networks) won't buy it, either. You can't support enormous tax cuts for high-earners that would require tax increases for the middle-class and the poor to fund the government. There is no way that a majority of the country is going to buy that.
A strategy to limit future low-skill immigration is not in itself a strategy for winning over any particular voting bloc. But it can be a part of a conservative strategy that focuses on the concerns of struggling voters. That strategy can (and should) include shifting future immigration in favor of skills and English proficiency, but it must also address other working-class priorities. It requires reducing the payroll tax liabilities of working parents. It probably requires some kind of wage subsidy for the lowest-earning workers. It requires a conservative health care agenda that increases choice and consumer power while allowing people to insure themselves against catastrophic health care costs.
The problem with Romney and the post-Romney Republican establishment is that they too often focused on the priorities of the business lobbies. The right will always be the (relatively) more pro-lower tax, lower spending, and lower regulation side. But there is a great deal of policy flexibility within that economic conservatism to address the concerns of people who are at (or below) the earnings median. If conservatives want to win over struggling native-born white workers and struggling foreign-born workers, then they should start with an agenda (including on immigration) that offers those workers respect and the chance to earn higher living standards with a little more economic security.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.