US Republicans could finally win the argument on immigration

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The writer is executive director of American Compass

Political conditions in the US are ripe for rare progress on immigration. The issue has always fallen victim to debates over timing. Which should come first — serious border enforcement or an amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country? Progressives, content with weak enforcement and a rising population that expected to be granted legal status in any eventual compromise, have long felt that time was on their side. But a confluence of forces is now shifting that calculus. 

What appeared at one time a stunt — Republican governors sending busloads of illegal immigrants to cities unprepared to handle the influx — has evolved into a systemic crisis. More than 100,000 migrants have arrived in New York City over the past year and a half; 60,000 reside in temporary government shelters there. Massachusetts has declared a state of emergency and a recent poll of the state’s generally progressive population found that immigration had risen suddenly to the fourth most important issue facing residents. 

Public perception of the problem is compounded by the surge in lawlessness under the Biden administration. The transition from the Trump administration’s harsh enforcement in 2020 to the new administration’s lax approach in 2021 yielded a quadrupling of illegal border crossings to an all-time high. This crisis is a policy choice, not some irresistible force. 

Americans have previously reacted with resignation. But not this time. A national poll conducted this month by CBS News found that only 34 per cent of Americans approve of Joe Biden’s handling of the issue, with lower marks only on inflation. Among Hispanics that figure fell to 29 per cent, and among independents to 26 per cent. Such numbers will worry the Democrats as they head into a presidential election that is likely to pit Biden against former president Donald Trump, for whom immigration is a signature issue. Exactly how worried they will be depends on how the Republicans now play their hand. 

Conservatives in the GOP have pushed border enforcement for years, but have always run into two political problems, which seem increasingly surmountable. One is the challenge of telling a positive story about the aspiration for a secure border. “Making the case for why we should control immigration,” observes former senator and Trump’s attorney-general Jeff Sessions, “will be essential to achieving an immigration policy Americans can be proud of.” 

Highlighting the depravities of the status quo — the human and drug trafficking, the abuse and exploitation — is important, but that is not enough. Conservatives also have to make the case that they, too, want a generous and humanitarian immigration system, as do most Americans, but that an emphasis on enforcement is the only way to ever achieve it. This has been a hard sell in the past, but now conservatives can expect to win the argument that border security enforcement is both non-negotiable and achievable. 

The other problem for conservatives has been the business lobby, which covets the deep pool of cheap and exploitable labour that illegal immigration provides. On no other issue does it leverage its power within the Republican party so aggressively, both to undermine genuine efforts at enforcement and to demand a range of politically unpopular expansions in legal immigration that dilute any bill’s message and appeal. Conservatives often lose the battle just to mandate that employers use E-Verify, a government system for confirming that new hires are authorised to work — a modest measure and an absolute necessity for any effective enforcement regime. 

But big business’s influence in the GOP coalition is waning. And while some small businesses depend heavily on illegal labour, most would presumably prefer to hire legally and resent that the choice between breaking the law or being undercut by others who do that is forced upon them. A forthcoming American Compass poll of Republican primary voters finds that 85 per cent see a situation where employers struggle to find enough workers to hire as “a tight labour market” that’s “good”, while 15 per cent consider it a “labour shortage” that’s “bad”. 

Congress appears to be heading for a government shutdown at the beginning of next month, in which immigration enforcement will be a key Republican demand. This will be the first of several pitched battles in the coming year, when conservatives will have the opportunity to take advantage of their newfound strength on the issue. By election day 2024, America’s southern border may be a very different place. 

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