Republicans’ immigration deal makes no sense

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WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: The U.S. Capitol building in the distance, some 200,000 immigrants' rights activists flood the National Mall to demand comprehensive immigration reform on March 21, 2010 in Washington DC.

Article Highlights

  • Republicans do nothing to address the reasonable concerns of those who opposed the immigration bill the Senate passed last June.

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  • Blocking citizenship wouldn’t help on any of the comprehensive immigration reform.

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  • Maybe a compromise on immigration is possible -- but this isn’t the right one.

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House Republicans who want to advance what they call “comprehensive immigration reform” say they’ve found a workable compromise, one that allays the concerns of opponents, improves current policy and allows the party to make gains among Hispanics.

Their big idea: Illegal immigrants who meet various conditions should be allowed to work in the U.S. legally, but not to get on a fast track to citizenship.

That’s the line drawn by a new statement of principles from House Republican leaders. Putting illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, supporters say, would amount to “amnesty,” while giving many of them legal status would merely acknowledge the reality that we aren’t going to deport them all.

But this compromise won’t do what it’s supposed to do. It does nothing to address the reasonable concerns of those who opposed the immigration bill the Senate passed last June, and it does almost nothing to solve the party’s political problem with Hispanics.

Most Republicans realize that passing legislation that legalizes illegal immigrants won’t win them a lot of Hispanic votes. They do think, however, that a significant number of Hispanics would be willing to listen to them on other issues once they’re no longer seen as enthusiasts for mass deportation. Hispanics won’t blame Republicans for withholding citizenship, the argument goes, because most illegal immigrants place a higher priority on being able to work than on being able to vote.

If you oppose a path to citizenship, though, you’re not going to find much to like in a path to legalization. Some opponents say it’s wrong in principle to reward people for law-breaking by giving them the very thing they broke the law to get. And for these opponents, illegal immigrants shouldn’t get the chance to work in the U.S. legally when so many people in other countries who have applied in the proper way are still waiting.

Other opponents worry that the Senate bill will act as a magnet for more illegal immigrants: Its enforcement provisions won’t work well, or won’t really be implemented, and more immigrants will cross the border illegally in the expectation that they will be legalized in some future round of reform. Again, drawing a line at citizenship won’t answer this objection.

Still other opponents dislike the Senate bill because they see no pressing need to legislate a large increase in the number of immigrants -- particularly in the number of immigrants who would be doing low-wage work. It’s not as though the country faces a generalized labor shortage, or looks likely to anytime soon. And a large increase has downsides. It would increase claims on government spending in the long run, make assimilation harder, and probably place downward pressure on the wages of low-skilled Americans, low-skilled legal immigrants already here, and low-skilled legal immigrants we would accept in the future even without passage of the Senate bill.

Blocking citizenship wouldn’t help on any of these fronts.

Republicans shouldn’t overestimate how much goodwill this legislation would buy them among Hispanics, either. For one thing, if it passed, it would do so with the votes of many more Democrats than Republicans; Hispanics who pay attention to this issue would know that many Republicans -- maybe most -- opposed it. For another, Democrats would still be able to portray Republicans as anti-Hispanic. They would attack them for denying citizenship to the newly legalized population and, for that matter, to the new guest workers the legislation calls for.

Maybe a compromise on immigration is possible -- but this isn’t the right one.

A better idea would have four parts: We’d increase enforcement of immigration laws at the border and in the workplace. We’d put people who were brought here illegally while they were minors but have otherwise obeyed the law on a path to full citizenship. We’d signal that amnesty for other illegal immigrants might be possible in the future once we’re sure that enforcement is working. And we’d reform our legal immigration policies to let in more high-wage workers.

That compromise still wouldn’t win over anyone who opposes amnesty in principle. But it would be fair to the children of illegal immigrants, and it would be good for assimilation. It would also accord with what the public seems to want as measured by polls.

If Republicans aren’t ready to do something like that, then maybe they should drop this subject until they are.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.)

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