George Will’s flawed case for immigration reform

While we’re on the subject of George Will, let’s consider his column today in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Will races through a series of objections by conservatives to such reform, dismissing many of them as reflecting a lack of faith in the vibrancy of our economy and our society that he finds unbecoming in conservatives.

Knee-jerk pessimism is unbecoming in conservatives, but so is knee-jerk optimism. Conservatives should not make policy decisions based on argument from attitude (e.g., optimism or pessimism) or attractiveness.

This is not to say that Will’s case for reform is entirely attitude or aesthetics based. For example, he cites a Congressional Budget Office analysis that estimates that immigration reform would produce an initial slight reduction of low wages (0.1 percent in a decade) followed by increased economic growth partly attributable to immigrants. Ramesh Ponnuru points to the limited value of this CBO analysis in evaluating the economic impact of immigration reform.

Will’s weakest argument is his response to the concern that the immigrants who become citizens thanks to immigration reform will be, overwhelmingly, Democratic voters. Will begins by asserting that “this descent into Democratic-style identity politics is unworthy of Republicans.” This argument from aesthetics is unworthy of Will.

Next, he argues that “U.S. history tells a consistent story — the party identified with prosperity, and hence opportunity, prospers.” But does it prosper among poor immigrants?

Until 1929, the Republican Party indisputably was the party identified with prosperity, having governed the country with few interruptions for six decades of unprecedented boom. Did immigrants gravitate to the GOP?

Republicans did reasonably well among German immigrants, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of the great Carl Schurz. But among Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants it was, I believe, a different story. And after 1929, these immigrants and their descendants were important foot soldiers in the New Deal which moved the country sharply to the left.

It is naive to suppose that Hispanic immigrants will buck this pattern. Indeed, there’s a good chance they will be more incorrigibly Democrat than past waves of immigrants. Identity politics may be unworthy of Republicans, but in a country that has become ambivalent (or worse) about assimilation as an imperative, such politics may have even greater longer-term sway now than they did 100 years ago.

Will concludes that “a defensive crouch. . .is not for conservatives.” But neither is leading with one’s chin.


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