The moderate, the old saying goes, is a man with his head in the oven and feet in the freezer who praises the mild temperature. The GOP’s attempt to strike a “moderate” position on immigration reform seems no less nuts.
America, as we all know, has an enormous population of illegal immigrants, somewhere between 11 and 20 million, depending on who you ask. According to an extensive 2009 Pew Research study, they comprise about five percent of the US workforce, including nearly a quarter of all agricultural workers. In states like California and Nevada, their share of the labor market is said to be as high as 10%.
Legally speaking, all these people should be deported. Under the terms of Section 237 of the US Immigration and Nationality Act, after all, deportation is the catch-all punishment for any alien present in the United States under any sort of unauthorized pretence, and presumably America’s laws exist to be enforced.
Unfortunately, they can’t.
Forcibly deporting 20 million people from the United States would be one of the single largest resettlements of human beings in modern history, comparable only to the post-WW2 expulsions of Germans from the former Nazi colonies of eastern Europe. It would also require a massive spike in government spending to properly carry out; a 2010 report from the Centre for American Progress put the price tag at around $285 billion — the rough equivalent of two years fighting in Iraq at its worst. And this wouldn’t be one of your classic spend-money-to-make-money government programs either; another study claimed jettisoning all that labor could inflict a loss of $2.6 trillion to America’s GDP.
But if not deportations, then what?
The solution preferred by most Democrats has long been the so-called “path to citizenship,” whereby anyone living illegally in the States can earn a pardon for his lawbreaking if he agrees to begin a process of naturalization. Such a scheme was the at core of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate last spring; under its terms, illegals could become full US citizens after 10 years of residence and successful completion of a three-year legalization program.
Republicans, meanwhile, hate this sort of stuff.
What you’re talking about is an amnesty for lawbreakers, they say, and reenforcing the idea that America is a country that not only fails to punish foreign invaders, it actively rewards them with its highest honor. Millions of legal immigrants are currently pursuing US citizenship through the long slog outlined in the Immigration Act; what does it say about a nation that treats these people like suckers in order to give priority to those who knowingly jumped the line?
Yet the party’s been equally clear that mass deportations are off the table. Marco Rubio now speaks in dark tones about those wanting to “round up” illegals, while other right-wing darlings like Senator Mike Lee refuse to even say the d-word, and instead claim to want nothing but “dignity and respect” for our undocumented friends. Even “self-deportation” — the awkward phrase Mitt Romney coined to refer to the strategy of passing burdensome bills (like the infamous Arizona ones) to make American life so unbearable for illegals they’d leave just to escape the hassle — seems to be a no-go. “It’s not our party’s position,” says the RNC chief. Some Republicans have even used the Obama administration’s unprecedentedly-high deportation record as an anti-Democrat talking point.
That leaves only one option left: decriminalization.
When we talk about drugs, particularly marijuana, a policy of decriminalization is often seen as occupying the common-sense middle-ground between a heavy-handed War on Drugs on the one hand and permissive legalization on the other. It basically means acknowledging the wrongness of a deed, but imposing only the lightest penalties for committing it. Neither disincentive nor acceptance, in short — just murky grey resignation.
This seems to be the GOP’s model for what to do with illegals.
On Thursday, Congressional Republicans emerged from a two-day New England retreat waving an 800-word declaration of principles on immigration reform. Among other things, it vows “no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws” but does support the idea that they should be able to “live legally and without fear in the U.S.” providing they’re willing to pay “significant” fines, learn English, and steer clear of the welfare office.
In short, they basically want to create a second tier of Americans. While the native-born and lawful immigrants are all either citizens of the United States or in the process of becoming so, the GOP plan would exempt millions of residents from this equation and instead consign them to a sort of limbo in which they’ll pay American taxes and be subject to American laws, but enjoy none of the voting, travel, or employment rights that come with being an official member of the American family. They’d no longer be “illegals,” but neither would they be “immigrants” — just members of a permanent, decriminalized, foreign-born underclass.
That Republicans could make peace with such a brazenly repugnant policy is the product of the strange sort of madness only partisan politics can provoke.
In the aftermath of the GOP’s depressing loss in 2012, there’s been endless hang-wringing over the vast “minority gap” separating the Dems from the Reps, with particular anxiety reserved for the fact that America’s speedily-growing Latino population went for Obama by a two-to-one margin. This has produced an unprecedented Republican interest in Hispanic outreach, which has in turn produced an unprecedented Republican interest in immigration reform. Which has provoked an unprecedented backlash from the party’s anti-amnesty base, which has resulted in head-in-the-oven-feet-in-the-freezer compromise policy of alien decriminalization becoming official doctrine of the Republican canon.
Yet as far as pandering goes, there’s little reason to believe this will work.
Polls routinely show Latinos don’t actually care much about immigration reform — which only makes sense, given the vast majority of them are not illegals, or even immigrants. A Pew survey taken shortly before the 2012 election had only 34% of Hispanics ranking immigration as an “extremely important” issue, behind healthcare, the economy, education, and even “the federal budget deficit.” As Ann Coulter (stay with me here) reminded in a powerful editorial the other day, the reason non-whites tend to vote Democrat by such large margins is simply because they tend to be liberals by quite large margins. Even if the Republicans were championing the most progressive immigration policy in the world, in other words, they’d still probably lose the Latino vote thanks to the party’s right-wing views on taxes and abortion and whatnot.
Immigration is a thorny issue to be sure, and one that absolutely deserves serious debate and consideration. Unfortunately, Americans don’t really debate immigration anymore, they debate illegals, and in doing so elevate what’s essentially a law enforcement question to the conversation’s central issue, while reducing the actual central issues — how high immigration should be, what sorts of immigrants should be prioritized, and what exactly immigration is supposed to be doing for the country in the first place — to mere footnotes.
But such substantial matters will never be discussed so long as Republicans continue to prolong and complicate the illegals side-chat with absurd decriminalization “compromises” that represent the worst of both worlds.
At some point, the GOP will simply have to make peace with putting America’s undocumented millions on a path to citizenship (a path that deserves to be long, onerous, and accompanied by substantial improvements to border security) or learn to defend the pragmatic humanity of the status quo in which illegals remain criminals, but only a tiny minority ever suffer the consequences.
Neither of these positions will be vote-getters, to be sure. But it’s not like much else the party’s doing these days is either.
Move on while you can.