Republicans are terribly confused over illegal immigration. They still can’t quite figure out its role in the last election.
Did the issue lose them the Latino vote? Maybe — but why did they also forfeit the Asian vote, and by nearly the same margin? Why did the caricature of Republicans as old white nativists resonate with Asians as well? If support for closing the border and refusing amnesty lost Republicans the election, why do a majority of Americans continue to poll in opposition to any sort of collective amnesty?
And why, in some polls, did Latinos seem more concerned about continuing big-government readiness to help the poor and tax the wealthy than about immigration reform? Alan Simpson and Ronald Reagan, who helped to give us the 1986 amnesty, are not heroes to the Latino community. Is there statistical support for the often-repeated axiom that Latinos, as a group, are more likely than members of the so-called majority culture to embrace traditional family values — lower divorce rates, lower rates of illegitimacy, lower crime rates, higher graduation rates?
Of course, kinder, gentler talk — unlike the buffoonery that was heard in some of last year’s sloppy Republican primary debates — would have helped. Yet in 2008 circumspection and prudence did not aid all that much the moderate John McCain, who in the past had championed a sort of amnesty lite. And all the silly and often gratuitous braggadocio about upping the height of the border wall or electrifying it was more than trumped by the crass pandering of Barack Obama, who called on Latinos to “punish our enemies”; joined with a foreign nation, Mexico, to sue one of his own states, Arizona; and claimed his opponents wanted to arrest children on their way to ice-cream parlors. Note there is no national commentary deploring the fact that the president of the United States engaged in just the sort of crass ethnic showmanship that characterized the Republican debates. Apparently, because his pandering worked and the Republicans’ did not, under the laws of politics only the latter was pandering.
Confused by questions like these, Republicans don’t quite know what to do about the 11 to 15 million illegal aliens in our midst, with more to come in future years. And in lieu of wisdom, principles, and consistency, Republican are mostly experimenting, trying to square the circle and win the Latino vote with clichés about conservative values and a vaguely familiar message of amnesty for those already here predicated on no additional illegal immigration. But the problem can be only reduced, not solved, by kinder, gentler language and outreach to Latino groups, for in the end it is an existential issue well beyond trimming.
In truth, illegal immigration is illiberal to the core, based on reducing the legal applicant to a formalistic naïf, making a mockery of the law, undermining the American poor, enabling the worst policies of the Mexican government, and aiding the American well-off. True, it was mostly conservative employers and mostly liberal partisans, hand in glove, who have created the problem in the last 30 years — the one wanting cheap non-union labor, the latter wanting future dependents and constituents. But that said, there are now forces in play that ensure that the status quo is antithetical to everything the Republican party claims it stands for.
Republicans profess that they favor a meritocracy and a nation that looks at the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. But contemporary illegal immigration is not a theoretical issue about federal law. Rather, in terms of particular immigrant groups, it is largely of concern to Latin Americans, who want more Latin Americans to enter the United States, preferably legally but, if not, then illegally. This is largely for reasons of ethnic solidarity, never mind that it interferes with integration and assimilation. If it is a question of keeping the present system of massive influxes of illegal aliens, periodically remedied by amnesties of the 1986 sort, versus an entirely legal system that privileges education and skill sets, and therefore might well result in true diversity, with tens of thousands of Asians, Africans, and Europeans entering legally, rather than mostly a monolithic influx of Latin Americans entering illegally, then I fear most activists would prefer the present non-system.
In other words, if the southern border were closed, and only legal immigration were permitted, predicated on criteria other than ethnic profile, proximity, pseudo-historical claims on the American Southwest, and family ties, then Republicans would still lose the Latino vote, at least for the short term.
The situation is probably even worse than that for Republican immigration idealists. As they are learning in their disastrous cobra dance with the administration, Barack Obama and his activist supporters define “comprehensive immigration reform” quite differently from the way most Republicans would. If the latter are willing to concede de facto green-card status, with the much ballyhooed “pathway to citizenship,” to foreign nationals who have long resided here, are not on public assistance, and do not have criminal records — in exchange for closing the border, crafting a meritocratic legal-immigration system, and imposing fines on employers who hire illegals — the Democrats most probably would not be on board.