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Michael Warren
The Immigration Two-Step
Jeb Bush perfectly illustrates the Republican quandary.
26 April 2013

Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, by Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick (Threshold, 304 pp., $27)

Jeb Bush hoped to play a main role in the revived immigration debate. Ever since Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, Republicans had been asking themselves how to improve their standing with that growing bloc of voters. A smart and popular former governor of the heavily Hispanic swing state of Florida, Bush could show the way forward on immigration for Republicans, helping the party avoid another presidential defeat in 2016. And who knows: perhaps he would be the candidate at the top of the ticket.

What happened instead demonstrates the continued peril that the GOP faces when it tackles immigration politics. In 2012, Bush had endorsed a “path to citizenship” for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. Yet in his new book, Immigration Wars (coauthored with Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute), Bush writes that eventually granting citizenship to any illegal immigrants would be an “undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage”; we should create a path not to citizenship but to legal residency, which some conservatives might denounce as an amnesty but others might be willing to tolerate. When it came time to promote Immigration Wars on national TV, though, Bush reverted to his previous position. Asked by NBC’s David Gregory about a Senate proposal supported by Republicans John McCain and Marco Rubio, Bush said: “If they can find a way to get to a path to citizenship over the long haul, then I would support that.”

Confused? You’re not alone: that’s probably how most Republican politicians feel about immigration in 2013. Romney lost the election for many reasons, but as the Hispanic share of the population grows—particularly in reddish-purple states like Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia—the GOP has decided that immigration reform is vital to forging its future. Figuring out what that reform will look like, though, is making a lot of Republican heads spin.

Bush and Bolick’s proposal includes streamlining the byzantine immigration-processing bureaucracy, increasing guest-worker visas for high-skill immigrants, and giving more flexibility to the states in handling immigration policy. “In particular, as to emergency medical services—which must be made available to everyone under current federal law—states should be allowed to define which services are covered, so that emergency rooms are no longer used to obtain nonemergency care at great taxpayer expense,” they write. They also identify immigration’s “eight-hundred-pound gorilla,” pointing out that almost two-thirds of visas are currently issued for purposes of family reunification (broadly defined to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and adult children). Reunification, they explain, “has become the main driver of immigration policy, with the highly adverse effect of crowding out opportunities for working immigrants who would make a tremendous contribution to American prosperity.” An immigration regime that prioritized workers instead of families would boost the economy while rebuilding an aging native population and revitalizing a straining welfare state.

The book’s postscript focuses on how Republicans can court Hispanic voters. Bush and Bolick rightly note that religious Hispanics—particularly those who are Pentecostal, evangelical, or charismatic Christians—represent an untapped source of Republican political support. Here, a robust education debate could benefit Republicans, since Hispanics overwhelmingly support various forms of school choice. One poll found that Hispanic voters “by a 70-20 percent margin said they would cross party lines to vote against an anti-school choice candidate.”

Bush and Bolick avoid some false assumptions that conservatives often make about Hispanics—notably, the belief that Hispanics are overwhelmingly pro-life and thus will eventually migrate to the GOP. (Even Hispanic Catholics are only slightly more likely to say that abortion should be illegal than to say that it shouldn’t be.) But the authors do overstate the appeal of “freedom of enterprise.” It may be true, as they contend, that “Hispanics are tremendously entrepreneurial and create a vast number of small, family-owned businesses.” They may be right that Republicans “should champion enterprise zones, deregulation of entry to occupations and businesses that require few skills and little capital, and lower business taxes.” But there’s no evidence that most Hispanics who heard similar arguments from Romney and the GOP in 2012 were swayed.

Above all, the authors say, the GOP must “put the immigration issue behind us,” starting by changing its tone:

What turns off Hispanic voters is the hostile tone of the debate over immigration. When Republicans advocate fencing off the Mexican border or cutting off social benefits for illegal immigrants, they often overtly or implicitly associate Mexican immigrants with crime and welfare, a stereotype that creates understandable resentment even among people who might agree on the substance of the policy. Likewise, the toxic rhetoric of “self-deportation” suggests that certain groups are not wanted. Even though immigration typically is not a top priority among Hispanic voters, it is a gateway issue: if Republicans set a hostile tone and message on immigration, they will never make it through the gate, and other messages that would resonate among Hispanics will not be heard.

Unfortunately for the GOP, adopting a softer stance on immigration may not help it win Hispanic votes, even if it also pushes harder for school choice and reaches out to conservative Hispanic Christians. The reason: at the moment, surveys show, Hispanics are likely to say that they support a larger role for government in the economy. To win many of them, Republicans might have to move away from their limited-government principles. Not only could amnesty (variously defined) alienate the working-class voters who see immigrants, not unreasonably, as economic competitors; doing so while agreeing to bigger government could break apart the conservative coalition that makes up the GOP’s base. In the “immigration wars,” can the GOP hope for nothing better than a Pyrrhic victory?

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