The RNC Report: What Does It Say About Immigration?

Yesterday the Republican National Committee released a report on the “Growth and Opportunity Project.” The chairmen of the group who authored the report explain:

As the co-chairs of the project, we were charged with making recommendations and assisting in putting together a plan to grow the Party and improve Republican campaigns. We were asked to dig deep to provide an honest review of the 2012 election cycle and a path forward for the Republican Party to ensure success in winning more elections.

The report, which you can read here, is addressed to the RNC and focuses in large part on steps that the Committee itself can take. It includes, however, broader recommendations directed to the party as a whole. It is these recommendations that have stirred a great deal of controversy. While the group that produced the report emphasized that “We are not a policy committee,” it has been widely reported as advocating Republican support for citizenship for illegal aliens and gay marriage, and has been roundly criticized on that basis. Paul joined the chorus this morning, criticizing the committee’s call for comprehensive immigration reform.

But what does the report say on this topic? It certainly does argue that Republicans should embrace comprehensive immigration reform, as the key to competing more successfully for Hispanic votes:

[A]mong the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.
In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.

It is encouraging that there are many Republican leaders both in the House and the Senate working on immigration proposals. As the party advocates for positive solutions on immigration, we will be more successful appealing to Hispanic voters on other issues.

The report does not say anything about what “comprehensive immigration reform” should include, and it implies, as in the quote immediately above, that there is a diversity of proposals. In an interview with Jennifer Rubin, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said that neither he nor the report is taking a position on what form immigration reform should take:

He clarified that he is not, for example, taking a position on immigration. The report calls for comprehensive immigration reform but says nothing about the form of that reform. (That could be a borders-only plan and delayed green-card status with no citizenship, frankly.) He said, “It’s not appropriate for the party chairman to pick and choose what provision of what law is going to be included or excluded.” But the issue is “important [enough] for us to be a part of the debate.”

Is this difference a significant one? I think it is. I can imagine a “comprehensive immigration reform” proposal that I would support enthusiastically. Such a plan would address legal immigration as well as illegal immigration, and its cornerstone would be an immediate and total end to chain immigration. It could include better border security, which largely means more effective sanctions against the hiring of illegals. And, in return for those things, I for one would happily accept an expansion of work permits for, e.g., agricultural workers, and would be willing to extend those permits to, among others, those who are now here illegally. “Comprehensive immigration reform” need not include a path to citizenship for current illegals.

That this distinction is far from academic is illustrated by the speech that Rand Paul gave before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning. If anyone on the current scene is not an “establishment” Republican, it is Rand Paul. But he endorsed comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status that would include those now here illegally. Initially, it was widely reported that Paul had called for a “pathway to citizenship” for illegals. I happened to hear Paul interviewed on the Mike Gallagher radio show shortly after he delivered his speech. Gallagher asked him about the headlines to the effect that Paul had come out for a “path to citizenship.”

Paul said that he had been misquoted, and in fact the word “citizenship” appeared nowhere in his speech. As the conversation continued, however, Paul added that there is already a path to citizenship under current law: that is, persons who are now here illegally can apply for citizenship in the normal course. He said that under some reform proposals, they would be required to return to their home countries before they could apply for citizenship, but he saw little point in that. His idea, as I understand it, is that those who are now in this country illegally would be able to apply for citizenship on exactly the same terms as anyone else, neither being penalized nor receiving preferential treatment. How those applications would be treated would depend, of course, on the immigration laws then in effect.

In my view, it would be possible–indeed, rather easy–to fashion a “comprehensive immigration reform” that would not have the effect of legalizing millions of Democratic voters-in-waiting. One can debate how much good such proposals would do for Republicans among Hispanic voters. But what the RNC report emphasizes above all, on this issue, is the importance of tone. I do think it makes sense for Republicans to offer immigration reform proposals that, among other things, address some of the problems in the current legal immigration system, which, in my view, are every bit as serious as the illegal immigration problem. There is plenty of room for debate on other issues, like the number of work permits that should be made available for agricultural workers, hotel and restaurant employees, and so on. On one hand, allowing mass low-wage immigration undoubtedly brings down the incomes of unskilled and semi-skilled American citizens. On the other hand, as Rand Paul said this morning, what we have in place currently is a system of de facto amnesty. So I think there is room for Republicans to debate these issue and offer competing proposals that would go under the heading of “comprehensive immigration reform.”

The RNC report is interesting in a number of other ways, and I will have more to say about it over the next few days.