Immigration is supposed to be a bitterly divisive topic for Republicans. Yet a very narrow range of opinion separates the party’s leading presidential candidates, which is unfortunate for the country.
The last Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, opposed giving legal status to illegal immigrants. But most of the candidates this time around favor it. Jeb Bush thinks many illegal immigrants should be offered legal status, and maybe even citizenship. Scott Walker has taken the same view. So have Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal. Ted Cruz (for the record, a friend of mine) opposes citizenship but favors offering legal status. That’s where Rand Paul is too.
None of them, understand, supports “amnesty”: That’s what they call other people’s plans. They just happen to support policies that are identical to what amnesty opponents say they’re against.
And that’s not the only part of immigration policy where the field has reached a consensus. Paul and Bush both explicitly favor expansive guest-worker programs; none of the other top- tier candidates has spoken up against it. Everyone also seems to favor increasing legal immigration. Several of them say so explicitly, while others’ views can be inferred from their comments and votes.
The outlier among Republican candidates is Rick Santorum, who has voted against guest-worker programs and thinks legal immigration levels should be reduced. He’s “the only one who’s trying to push the envelope in terms of what’s being debated,” says Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist research group.
But Santorum’s view is not a fringe one. In the most recent Gallup Poll on the topic, 39 percent of Americans wanted less immigration and only 7 percent wanted more. You wouldn’t know it from watching politicians. When Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama offered an amendment that would cap legal immigration over the next decade at a generous 33 million, he was the only one to vote for it. Seventeen of his Judiciary Committee colleagues (including Cruz) said no.
Krikorian argues that “this is an elite versus the public issue.” Business executives, religious leaders and editorial writers at prominent publications – along with the politicians who spend time with them, court their approval and seek their donations – are much more likely than other Americans to want increased immigration.
This elite consensus has something to recommend it, especially its sympathy for and realism about the millions of unauthorized immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for years. But granting them legal status may just encourage more illegal immigration unless politicians resolve to enforce the laws more strictly – and much of the public doesn’t trust them to do that, partly because they know that elites don’t represent them on this issue.
This zeal among Republican candidates for higher levels of immigration, as well as for a guest-worker program, also seem wrongheaded as a matter of policy. It stands to reason that immigrants would assimilate more quickly – and earn higher wages – if the country took in fewer of them, and didn’t consign many of them to a second-tier workforce without the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. It would probably also be better for Americans doing low-wage work if they didn’t have to compete with temporary workers willing to put up with poor pay and labor conditions.
These are questions that could usefully be debated by presidential candidates. But that would require candidates who disagreed about them. In their absence, what we will probably get instead of a real debate are more word games about “amnesty.”
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.