On Immigration, What’s the Hurry?

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress to “get immigration reform done this year.” Other proponents of “reform,” on both sides of the aisle, have echoed that refrain, saying that now is the time to address the long-simmering issue of immigration.

But why? The Democrats have wanted amnesty and vastly increased low-skill immigration for a long time, but why is now–2014–a good time for Republicans to join them? As things stand, public revulsion at Obamacare, along with the usual sixth-year malaise, almost guarantees that the GOP gains seats in the House. It is likely to take the Senate as well. So why is this a good time for Republican leaders to introduce an issue that will split the party wide open, anger most of the GOP base, and undoubtedly cause some conservatives to stay home rather than voting Republican in November? From a political point of view, now is a terrible time to take up immigration reform.

So, too, from a policy perspective. If Republicans want a better immigration bill, why not wait until next year, when they likely will control the Senate? Then they can pass a bill that is not larded up with the extreme provisions that Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer et al. have inserted into the current Senate legislation. If Republicans want conservative immigration reform, isn’t it obvious that they should wait until next year, assuming there is any reason to act on immigration at all?

It seems clear that what is driving the leaders of both parties, but especially the Republicans, is that more than a good immigration bill, they want a bipartisan immigration bill. John Boehner et al. know that immigration reform of the type toward which they are inexorably moving is deeply unpopular with Americans, especially Republicans. They know that when voters realize that tens of millions of new unskilled immigrants are being admitted, they will be angry. When voters see that the essence of “reform” is amnesty, they will be angry. When voters see that there is still no effective enforcement of our immigration laws, they will be angry. When they see that unemployment is rising and wages are falling, they will be angry. When that time comes, leaders of both parties want the voters’ anger to be directed at both parties, and therefore, as a practical matter, at neither.

John Boehner and his colleagues want to do immigration “reform” hand in hand with the Democrats, even though doing so imperils their chances of winning the Senate, because they want responsibility for unpopular immigration legislation to be shared. If Republicans were to wait until 2015 and then, having gained control of the Senate, pass some comprehensive immigration bill, they would own the issue and the inevitable voter backlash would be directed at them. To avoid that fate, Republican leaders are willing to act now, and therefore take a chance on the Senate staying Democratic.

But why are Republicans going down this path at all? It is easy to see why Democrats are willing to risk voter wrath in the short term: they expect immigration “reform” to produce many millions of new Democratic voters, who will assure Democratic dominance in Washington for a generation, and maybe forever. That is a prize worth taking risks for. But why are Republicans willing to join in what looks like a suicide pact? Some, I think, are under the delusion that backing amnesty will be good for the party politically because it will garner Hispanic votes. Others may be so muddle-headed as to believe that increased GDP–and GDP will of course increase if we add tens of millions of new workers–means a better economy. But the principal reason the Republican House leadership is willing to take such terrible risks for the sake of bipartisan immigration legislation is that the party’s donors want it. The party’s leaders are faced with a stark choice between the wishes of the rank and file and those of the donor community, and they have chosen the donors.

There are honorable exceptions, like Jeff Sessions, who has tirelessly tried to represent the interests of America’s working people. But it seems that a majority of the party’s leaders, certainly in the House, are of the view that the main thing one needs to win elections is not principles, but money, and therefore the donors come first. Seen in that light, the Republican Party stands at a crossroads, and it appears at this moment that the party’s leaders are prepared to choose what most of the party’s members consider to be the wrong path.

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