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Harrop: Politics vs. immigration reform

Published: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 11:08 p.m. CDT

Republicans are again at war with themselves over immigration reform. Ideally, they would agree on the need to legalize millions of illegal immigrants now here and to better control the number of future unskilled foreigners competing with our struggling working class.

Unfortunately, neither the Republican Party’s leadership nor its conservative opposition is entirely with the program. The conservative base doesn’t want to legalize, and the leadership wants a generous supply of cheap labor.

Seeing this rift, some Republican strategists advise simply avoiding the conversation altogether. One of them, Bill Kristol, holds that with midterm elections coming, the smart politics for Republicans is to bang on Obamacare rather than get into an intraparty fight over immigration.

One could counter-argue that letting immigration reform fester would not be politically wise, given the growing clout of Latino voters. Meanwhile, the share of Americans wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act has fallen to 34 percent, according to a recent CBS poll. This number will probably go far lower by Election Day as the dust settles and the public becomes familiar with Obamacare’s benefits.

As for immigration reform, the conservative base is justified in casting a wary eye at the GOP leadership’s intentions. The leaders’ business allies, notably the Chamber of Commerce, want low wages. If they can get them through illegal immigration, fine. But if they can suppress pay through big guest-worker programs, also fine. Numbers matter, and the more low-skilled workers, legal or otherwise, the lower the wages.

So the conservative base should keep a watchful eye. When Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., warns against “a larger flow of immigration that threatens the financial future of middle-class Americans,” he has a point – although mass immigration by low-skilled workers threatens mainly poorer Americans.

These conservatives also worry that granting any kind of legal status would encourage more illegal immigration. But the status quo is what most fosters illegal immigration.

Jobs are the magnet for the vast majority of undocumented workers. The bipartisan Senate proposal for reform would go far in closing down the U.S. labor market to those without papers. For example, it would (finally) require fraud-proof biometric ID for all job applicants. And it would seriously punish employers who break the law.

Amnesty for otherwise law-abiding illegal entrants is the political price of restoring order in the immigration program. Conservatives should accept it and drop the charge that “they” broke U.S. law. It’s true – they did – but this was a law that the American government held in contempt.

And there are moral considerations. Many illegal immigrants have become virtual Americans, settled in their neighborhoods and key employees for local businesses. Their children are more often than not culturally American.

With logic on reform’s side, Kristol must turn to an emotional standard from the right’s political playlist: “President Obama obviously can’t be trusted.”

That’s an odd accusation, in that Obama has been the only president in recent memory to enforce the weak law we now have. Obama’s administration has deported 2 million illegal immigrants, a record for any president. Immigration activists urged him to announce an end to deportations in the State of the Union address. He did not.

The conservative base already knows that it’s at odds with some of the party’s business interests. Perhaps it should take a giant leap and admit to some shared concerns with labor unions -- and many Hispanics, who want the same job and wage security that they do.

Anyhow, there are things besides politics. Like governing. After the midterms, the politicos will be gearing up for the 2016 presidential election, and then after that, another midterm.

So how about solving a problem now and then?

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.  

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