The Ripon Forum

Volume 40, No. 3

June - July 2006 Issue

Immigration Reform: The Challenges Ahead

By on October 14, 2015 with 0 Comments


The immigration debate is at a fever pitch as the Ripon Forum goes to press. Only a fool would try to predict what will happen next, either in the Senate, which will probably vote this week, or in the skirmishing that could follow if lawmakers then move ahead to try to reconcile the Senate package with the much tougher bill passed by the House last December.  

Still, nothing that happens in the next few months will change the big picture. The immigration problem isn’t going away; the public is clamoring for a solution. It’s time for America to end illegal immigration as we know it. And divided as they are and understandably wary of the issue, no one has a bigger stake than Republicans in being  part of that solution.  

The party faces three possible options. 

We could hew to the hard line charted by House Republicans, who favor tougher enforcement and fewer immigrants in the hope that a tough stance will appeal to voters in November.   

We could try to duck the issue. After all, look at the polls, the argument for this option goes, the party’s in enough trouble as it is.  Why take on a thankless problem like this – it can only divide us.


Tamar Jacoby makes a point on immigration reform during a Ripon Society Conference in Dallas in October 2005. A right is U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (TX)

Or – the third option – we could take the lead in the fight for reform.  That’s where President Bush has been pointing the party, more and more determinedly as time goes by – and many Republicans are skeptical. But in fact, on this, he’s right: this is a historic opportunity for the GOP to take a stand on the right side of change. 

Why not just take the easy out – one of the first two options?  Mostly because neither will work, and the long-term consequences would be disastrous. 

Talking tough may make for a good campaign spot, but it won’t solve the problem of illegal immigration. We’ve been throwing money at the border for more than a decade now: we’ve tripled the size of the Border Patrol and quintupled their budget. But we’ve still made no dent in the number of illegal immigrants who make it across into the U.S. every year: roughly a million, year in, year out. What’s more, talking tough isn’t likely to win elections, either. Pat Buchanan tried that in 2000 when he ran for  president on an anti-immigration platform. So, more recently, did Jerry Kilgore, running for governor of Virginia in 2005. Neither one holds elective office today, and in fact no race in 20 years has turned – either way – on immigration.   

As for trying to duck the issue, it’s a little late for that. The immigration legislation passed by House Republicans in December has already made history – and transformed American politics, probably for decades to come – by driving more than two million previously apolitical Hispanics into the streets in protest. And the GOP is on the verge of repeating the mistake it made in California in the mid-90s when then-Governor  Pete Wilson pitted the state party against immigrants, driving away the Latino vote for the decade to come.   

Not that Republicans should back immigration reform just because it’s popular with Latino voters. It also happens to be in America’s interest: the reforms on the table in the Senate this week are the only way to deliver the control the public is demanding, holding the line at the border and restoring the rule of law in our communities. 

What the president and other GOP immigration reformers understand – and all too many House Republicans don’t grasp – is that enforcement alone will not restore the rule of law.  Government, no matter how hard it tries, cannot change the realities of the global economy. The only way to get control is to combine tougher enforcement with more realistic, more enforceable law – law more in sync with our labor needs and the all but inevitable flow of immigrants coming to meet them. 

The difference between House and Senate Republicans isn’t about who’s tougher, it’s about who’s more pragmatic. Senate reformers like Chuck Hagel, Mel Martinez, John McCain and others say let’s recognize the economic facts of life – and once we’ve written law in line with those facts, let’s get tough about enforcing that. 

Let’s own up to our shifting demographics – our aging, shrinking and ever more educated workforce.  Let’s admit, even in a knowledge economy, our continuing need for unskilled labor. Let’s face the fact that for good or for ill – and mostly for good – we can’t isolate our economy from readily available low wage workers in other countries. Let’s recognize the truth about the world we live in – and tailor our law to take advantage of what’s true, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. 

The difference between the House and Senate Republicans isn’t about who’s tougher, it’s about who’s more pragmatic. Senate reformers like Chuck Hagel, Mel Martinez, John McCain and others say let’s recognize the economic facts of life – and once we’ve written law in line with those facts, let’s get tough about enforcing that.

Immigration reform isn’t just about immigrants, it’s also about modernity. And it’s about being smart enough to understand that if we own up to the reality of the world as it is, we don’t have to make a choice between immigration and legality – or between  prosperity and the rule of law.   

Are Republicans the party that can face the future and solve the problems that come with it – or the party that would rather duck, hiding behind symbolism and easy rhetoric? That’s the choice we face as immigration reform makes its way through Congress.  RF

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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