David Coates

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.[1] 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

    [1] 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.

    4 Responses to “Moderate Republicans, Going South”

    1. Immigration and the Problem of the Two-Legged Stool « David Coates Answering Back says:

      […] [11] The administration can’t even get bipartisan support for the DREAM Act, but easily passed (in a week) a $600 million bill to fund 1500 new border agents and unmanned surveillance drones. For earlier overviews of this lack of bipartisanship, see http://www.davidcoates.net/2010/04/25/stumbling-over-a-mess-of-your-own-making-arizona-and-immigration-reform/ and  http://www.davidcoates.net/2010/07/02/moderate-republicans-going-south/ […]

    2. jordan lowery says:

      You asked what is the Tea Party afraid of…our shadow or are we merely racist. Before I answer, believe me when I say…I wish we were guilty of an unfounded chicken little attitude or a racist perversion of attitude. I am truly interested in your response to the 2003 U.S. Justice Department Report on North Carolina (this is the most recent on NC) http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs3/3690/3690p.pdf and the 2010 Justice Dept. report on the United States at http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs38/38661/38661p.pdf

      Excerpt from NC Report
      “Mexican criminal groups are the dominant transporters and wholesale distributors of cocaine and marijuana in North Carolina. These criminal groups also transport and distribute methamphetamine and a limited amount of heroin. According
      to law enforcement officials throughout the state,Mexican criminal groups in southwestern states and Mexican drug trafficking organizations(DTOs)in Mexico routinely use Mexican illegal immigrants in North Carolina as couriers to transport
      cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and, to a lesser extent, heroin into and through the state. These criminal groups exploit a growing Mexican population in North Carolina to facilitate their illicit activities. Law enforcement authorities in North Carolina, principally in the western and
      southern areas of the state, indicate that Mexican criminal groups are also increasing their involvement in retail drug distribution. This is precipitating violence between Mexican criminal groups and African American retail dealers who traditionally controlled retail drug distribution in these areas.

      Most violent crime in North Carolina results from the distribution and abuse of crack cocaine. Gangs and local independent dealers commit violent crimes including assaults and homicides to protect their turf or settle outstanding debts. Dealers also assault or murder customers who attempt
      to obtain crack cocaine without paying for it. The Greensboro Police Department reports that approximately 85 percent of the homicides in its jurisdiction are related to the distribution and abuse of crack cocaine. Abusers often commit property crimes, such as burglaries and robberies,to support their habits. The Fayetteville Police Department, in response to the NDIC National Drug Threat Survey 2001, reports that crack
      cocaine abusers commit most of the property crimes in its jurisdiction.”

      Please scan these two reports. My sincere question for you would be “How are you not afraid?” I’m not trying to be smart…I truly desire dialogue and an understanding of how these facts can be discounted for the sake of illegal alien immigrant assimilation in light of the inherent dangers of reality.

    3. David Coates says:


      Thank you for your comment. You raise an important issue, to which I have two main responses.

      l. You are right to be concerned about the role of drug gangs in the undocumented community, and as I assume you realize, you are not alone in that concern. Indeed when the Republican base blocked the McCain-Martinez comprehensive immigration reform in 2006/7, many local Latino leaders were vocal in their fear that the presence of gangs would grow. Their argument was that if people are trapped in the shadows they will be more vulnerable to criminal gangs than if they are allowed to move along a path to legality and eventual citizenship. Your data reinforces my view that we all have an interest in crafting that path for the many hard-working undocumented immigrants now among us.

      2. The other comment is this. We need to remember the role that U.S. society plays in the creation of this problem. We are not the sole cause, but we are a major cause; and because we are, there are things to do at home as well as on the border. In “Answering Back” you will find this (pages 153-4). I still think that this is the case.

      “…it is neither legitimate nor helpful to collapse together the Mexican drug war and the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico, or to suggest that building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants will keep out Mexican drug cartels as well. It will not. Drugs, drug-related crime, and drug-linked gang membership collectively constitute a growing American problem, one of concern both to indigenous law enforcement here in the United States and to the leaders of recently arrived Latino communities. But it is a problem which is predominantly indigenous in origin, and whose drivers cannot be reduced to anything so simple as one country’s drug cartels, however ghastly those cartels may be. For drugs do not arrive here by accident. Not are they forced on a reluctant American population. On the contrary, as Hilary Clinton said so clearly in Mexico City in March 2009, it is “our insatiable demand for illegal drugs [that] fuels the drug trade” and it is “our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arms these criminals [that] causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.” (quoted in The New York Times, March 26, 2009) To stop the drug trade, we need to stop the illegal demand for drugs from legal US citizens. To stop fueling the drug war, we need to cut off the illegal flow of American guns supplied by legal US citizens. There is illegality here. There is a flow across the border; but the illegality in anchored more in American demand and American guns than it is in Mexican immigration; and a flow is one that begins with demand and guns moving south before the drugs move north. The forces creating the drug problem are predominantly home grown ones. They will not be terminated by demonizing the flow of hard-working non drug-taking Mexican immigrants into the base of the American labor market, and we need to say so.”

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