The PJ Tatler

No, Passing 'Comphrensive Immigration Reform' Will Not Help the GOP Win Elections

In an otherwise fine piece here at PJM on how identity politics did indeed hand Barack Obama another four years in the presidency, Patrick Reddy writes:

The disappointing Romney showing among Hispanics and Asians can be directly tied to the immigrant-bashing of some within the GOP. But this problem can quickly be solved by supporting a compromise immigration bill like the one President Reagan signed in 1986, and by putting a popular Hispanic like Marco Rubio on the Republican ticket in 2016 or 2020.

Um, really?

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act into law. That act was the culmination of years of determined and often bipartisan work in Congress. It was supposed to guarantee border security in exchange for legal status leading to a pathway to citizenship for about 3 million illegal aliens then living in the United States. It was a middle-of-the-road bill, sponsored by moderates, that ended up satisfying neither the right nor the left. It spelled out harsher penalties on employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens. The amnesty part happened, contributing to a sharp increase in the share of the Hispanic vote — from 2% in 1986 to a decisive 10% in 2012. As early as 1989, the security side of the law was seen as a failure. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the New York Times on June 18, 1989.

The most sweeping effort to halt illegal immigration in American history, the 1986 overhaul of immigration law, may have cut the flow of illegal aliens less than expected and may have actually encouraged unlawful entry in several ways.

According to indicators used by the immigration service to estimate traffic across the southern border, this year there will be 1.7 million to 2.5 million crossings. The most recent statistics signal that the flow may have increased in April and May.

Separate surveys of illegal aliens conducted by researchers based in Mexico, Texas and California all found that immigration by first-time travelers, as against those who had previously been to the United States, has been on the rise for at least a year. Experts also agree that the flow had dropped off through most of 1987. As a result, immigration experts say they have identified a ”wait and see” response to the law among potential immigrants that may be producing a new wave of illegal immigration.

The 1986 law allowed 3.1 million previously illegal aliens to obtain legal status here. Recent studies show that many thousands of people crossed the border surreptitiously to take advantage of the program, some of them with falsified documents and personal histories. The mass of newly legalized immigrants is also acting as a magnet for illegal aliens who want to come to the United States to join friends and relatives.

A plan to strengthen the Border Patrol was never fully carried out, and experts reach widely differing verdicts on the effectiveness of the sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens.

In the 1980s, California was still a state that could vote either Republican or Democrat at the state and presidential levels. Now, it’s a lock for the Democrats.

Essentially, and I’m probably oversimplifying a bit here, the 1960s expansion of the U.S. welfare state under LBJ combined with grinding poverty and general lawlessness and oppression in Mexico and Central America created powerful incentives for millions of people to migrate north in search of a mix of work, greater freedom, and more generous government benefits (better schools, hospitals, and so forth). Many business concerns were only too happy to have the influx of labor that was importing itself and was willing to work at below-market wages and conditions. The 1986 amnesty was a “comprehensive immigration reform” that turned out to be less comprehensive than advertised. It was intended to deal with the problem of mass illegal immigration at the border with enhanced security, and in the US interior by granting legal status. Security never really happened, while the legal status was granted. Millions of new citizens have been minted in Simpson-Mazzoli’s wake. As the NYT story says, that 1986 immigration “reform” not only failed to cut off the flow of illegal immigrants, at a minimum it gave other non-Americans a reason to look north and hope that if they crossed the border illegally, there would be another amnesty granting them legal status as some point, too. Given the current debate, it’s impossible to argue that they were wrong.

Surely, if facts matter at all, the facts of the nation’s last attempt at “comprehensive immigration reform” matter when discussing any current drive toward “comprehensive immigration reform.” Those facts should also inform us regarding what to do now.

A Republican president signed Simpson-Mazzoli into law in October 1986. The bill attracted support and opposition from both Republicans and Democrats (it’s even named for the moderate Republican and the moderate Democrat who championed it). Is the Republican Party better off as a result? Please show your work. Because as it turns out, Hispanic leaders in the Democratic Party bitterly opposed Simpson-Mazzoli at the time. Reps. Edward Roybal (D-CA) and Tony Coehlo (D-CA) fought the bill’s penalties on employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens, arguing that those penalties provided an incentive for businesses to refrain from hiring anyone who looked like they might be foreign. Along with Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, they demagogued the immigration reform bill that bubbled through Congress across five years as “discriminatory.” Are today’s Democrats more or less likely to similarly demagogue any “comprehensive immigration reform” in order both to water down its security side and to make sure Republicans reap no benefits from passing it?

Again, please show your work.

The fact is, millions of Americans justifiably see any attempt at “comprehensive immigration reform” now as a fraud. The last one was a fraud. Washington has not gotten more honest in the years since 1986, it has arguably gotten less honest. The current Democratic leadership very obviously puts its electoral interests above all other concerns. Identity politics are the glue that holds that party together. Democrats push “comprehensive immigration reform” now largely because they believe it will turn out as the 1986 version has turned out, benefiting their party, and they’re probably right.

There is no quick-fix solution to the GOP’s poor performance with Hispanic voters. Having better candidates and sunnier rhetoric can certainly help, but minting millions more Hispanic voters through amnesty will end up making it more difficult for Republicans to win elections, no matter what role Republicans might play in passing that amnesty. If there is a solution to the GOP’s growing problem with Hispanic voters, it is unlikely to lie in a policy that increases the power of a party that is essentially opposed to the free market and upward mobility. The solution is to articulate values that resonate and create the economic conditions by which millions of Americans of all backgrounds find it easier to pursue and obtain the American dream, and who then realize with Republican messaging that Democratic policies stand in their way. But doing that while a Democrat is in the White House standing on the neck of the U.S. economy and driving poverty and dependence on government to record levels is not likely to happen. Democrats will continue to do things that benefit Democrats. Poverty, dependence, and identity politics all favor Democrats. So we can expect more of all of those, as long as Obama is in the White House.