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New GOP House Majority Bodes Well for Immigration Reform

Washington’s new parlor game involves trying to gauge the chances for comprehensive immigration reform with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives.

Conventional wisdom suggests the chances aren’t good, and there is no way that the new GOP majority in the House would even consider what the last Republican president, George W. Bush, proposed not long ago as a way of fixing our broken immigration system: a three-pronged approach that combines increased border and worksite enforcement, a guest worker program that brings in foreign laborers to do jobs Americans won’t do, and a pathway to legal status for the undocumented.

But I’m not so sure that’s right.

Neither is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who recently told a journalism conference in Phoenix that Republicans might just surprise the political experts and seize on immigration reform as one of those areas where they compromise with the White House. Unlike issues such as health care and taxes, where the partisan divide is much sharper, immigration is an issue where you can find Republican support for a comprehensive approach. Especially, the governor said, because Republicans can’t afford to continue to be known as “the party of no.”

Richardson also thinks the chances for reform might have improved with the election of four Hispanic Republicans to Congress. The assumption is that, while Hispanic GOP lawmakers might have been drawn to the Republican Party by its positions on lower taxes and smaller government, they were probably not lured there by the nativist rhetoric that many Republicans find as addictive as crack cocaine.

What Richardson says makes sense, and I’m not surprised. He has always had one of the clearer heads on the immigration issue. In fact, during the 2008 Democratic primary election, voters consistently told pollsters that he had the best grasp on immigration of any of the Democratic candidates.

Still, on the question of why immigration reform might not fare so poorly after all with Republicans running the House of Representatives, Richardson has just skimmed the surface.

Let’s recall that, on the immigration issue, you not only find plenty of Republicans who favor comprehensive immigration reform — usually to please their benefactors in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the business community — but also plenty of Democrats who oppose it, usually at the behest of their benefactors in organized labor who want to keep their members from having to compete with guest workers.

That’s a major reason why, even with Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the last two years, the prospects for immigration reform have stalled. Is this the arrangement that the immigration reform community was so desperate to preserve? If so, reformers can do better.

And, this time, “better” might just mean Republican control of the House of Representatives. They certainly can’t do worse. Democrats had their shot and they refused to take it. They’ve been compromised on this issue. They’re always going to be paralyzed with fear and afraid that voters that will see them as weak on border security the same way that, a generation ago, they were seen as weak on national security.

Republicans don’t have that problem. Voters already assume that most of them are tough as nails on border security, so they can afford to bend a little in search of an honest and common sense solution. We might be in for a “Nixon goes to China” moment where Americans finally understand that there is a reason why, despite the rhetoric, it’s usually Republicans — and not Democrats — who push immigration reform efforts. For example, the last time the country debated an “amnesty,” it was in response to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a bill written by one Republican (Sen. Alan Simpson, R-WY) and signed by another (President Ronald Reagan).

There were shades of that same dynamics twenty years later when Congress took up the immigration issue again. In 2007, when the Senate was debating the bipartisan and exceptionally well-crafted Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, one of the chief architects of the bill was Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ — not exactly an immigration softie. And a half dozen Republicans signed on as sponsors. During the debate, Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, proposed an obnoxious amendment that would have stripped away the language calling for illegal immigrants to be given visas so they could remain in the country legally. That amendment was defeated by a vote of 29 to 66; those casting the “no” votes included 26 Republicans.

So now, in 2011, the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform might not be as bad as some of the experts suggest. And instead of bemoaning the fact that the House of Representatives will soon be under the control of Republicans, the immigration reform community should be celebrating it.