Moderate Republicans, Going South
Most things that were true in 2006 are still true in 2010. They are in life in general, and they are in the area of immigration reform. On the latter, if we take 2010 and compare it to 2006, what do we find? We find that the flow of undocumented workers has not fundamentally changed, except that it has definitely gone down in volume. We find that the safety and security of the border that undocumented workers illegally cross has not fundamentally changed, except it has gone up in both safety and security. The only significant thing that has changed in this key area of contemporary U.S. politics is that the Republican Party has gone off to tea. Instead of principled political leadership of the kind they offered in 2006, Republicans like John McCain are now obliged to cow-tow to their reactionary Tea Party base. The case for comprehensive immigration reform remains intact. The parameters of the possible have actually gone its way: a stronger border, slower immigrant flow, better ID technology. All that has gone south, in company with the economy, is the political courage of leading moderate Republicans.
The degeneration of thinking on immigration within the Republican Party would not matter were it not so important. But unfortunately it is. As the President said yesterday, ‘the fact is that without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem.” Comprehensive immigration reform is as vital now as it was in 2006. However, it cannot come – given the current political numbers in Washington – without the reassertion of a more intelligent and a more liberal Republicanism. That reassertion is hard to imagine in the present climate; but given what is at stake, it is presumably worth pursuing nonetheless.
How? Perhaps by remembering at least the following five truths. These five truths do not exhaust what needs to be said on this issue, but if deployed properly, they might yet frame the discussion in a more productive way. They are five truths that take us back to the approach which John McCain championed before the Republican base took him out to tea.
- The first is this: that walls – no matter how high you build them – do more than keep people out. They also trap people here who might otherwise go home. Mexican workers have flowed back and forth across the southern order for decades. Seventy percent of them are currently on record as wanting to work here to make money simply to return. Put up a wall and that market flow is broken and blocked. Do the wall builders really want to trap migrant Mexican labor permanently in the United States? I assume not, but their policy of choice unavoidably does that. Strange policy choice!
- Second, it remains the case that illegal immigration is actually as American as apple pie. Ask any Native American. Ask any descendant of a slave brought here against their will. Illegality in the movement of people was formative to the American story. Past illegality does not make contemporary illegality any less of an issue, of course, but it does suggest that we approach our present difficulties using a longer and more complex historical lens than the one normally deployed by those keen to send all undocumented workers home. The very first uninvited immigrants came to conquer, not to work. We do well to remember that, as we contemplate how best to deal with a flow of people who are keen just to work, not to conquer.
- Every wave of immigration thus far has assimilated and integrated. All the signs are that this wave will too, unless blocked from that assimilation by racial profiling and lack of assistance in the acquisition of a new language. Two and a half centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin feared that Germans would destroy Philadelphia. Today, Pat Buchanan fears that Hispanics will balkanize California. Pat Buchanan’s ancestors were German. He seems to have assimilated, so perhaps Benjamin Franklin was (and Pat Buchanan is) simply wrong. If we want people to assimilate, we should simply let them.
- Moreover, have people forgotten that potentially there are conservative as well as liberal votes here – votes for Republicans as well as for Democrats? The undocumented workers slipping across our southern border are not an alien cultural force, or a secret left-wing voting bloc. On the contrary, they are entrepreneurial (otherwise they would not be attempting so difficult a task). They are industrious. They are family-focused. They are Catholic. They are as likely to oppose gay marriage and abortion as they are to support a better minimum wage and strong trade unions. We saw that even in 2008. Prop 8 in California passed with Latino as well as African-American votes. What are the Tea Party people afraid of? Is it their shadow or is it their racism!
- And do we really want the home of the brave and the land of the free to be converted into a deportation heaven? If undocumented immigration is to end, by all means let us end it, but let us end it in a way which is consistent with American values and history. Let us make sure that all employers engage only documented workers, and penalize the employers and not the workers when they do not. Let us take down the physical wall and build an ID one instead; and create a path to legality for those hard-working and crime-free undocumented workers already here. Let us set minimum labor standards and have government regulators enforce them. Let us go with the AFL-CIO, and not the Tea Party Crowd.
John McCain was committed to comprehensive immigration reform when George W. Bush was President; and when he was, he spoke for many moderate Republicans. He believed then that it was possible to mend a broken immigration system and bring millions of undocumented workers out of the shadows without doing an injustice to those seeking to enter the United States the legal way. Yesterday, another President made a similar argument, and appealed across the aisle for moderate Republican support. What was legitimate for George W. Bush to do in 2006 remains legitimate for Barack Obama to do in 2010. The Obama appeal was well made. It needs now to be equally well met.
First posted at www.davidcoates.net
For a fuller defense of this position, see Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know (David Coates & Peter Siavelis, Potomac Books, 2009)
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Politics at Wake Forest University. He writes here in a personal capacity
 As the President said in his address at the American University on July 1, “the southern border is more secure today than at any time in the last twenty years.”
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.