GOP Split on Immigration Policy

Elisabeth Bumiller notes that,

In the days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, immigration policy was going to be President Bush’s signature issue. It was central to his thinking as the former governor of a border state, key to his relationship with President Vicente Fox of Mexico and essential in attracting new Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. Five years later, Mr. Bush has at last realized some momentum on immigration policy, but it is probably not the activity he once anticipated.

He has lost control of his own party on the issue, as many Republicans object to his call for a temporary guest-worker program, insisting instead that the focus be on shutting down the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. It is not clear how much help he will get from Democrats in an election year. The issue will come to the floor of the Senate next week, and the debate is shaping up as a free-for-all that will touch on economics, race and national identity.


Philosophically, the president, whose own sensibility on the issue was shaped by his experience as governor of Texas, says he is committed to a program that meets the needs of business: the creation of a pool of legal foreign workers for industries that have come to rely on low-wage labor. Mr. Bush also brings to the debate a stated belief that the country benefits from the immigration of hardworking people and their dreams of becoming Americans. He often talks about the United States as a land of immigrants, and on Monday in Cleveland he said that “my only advice for the Congress and for people in the debate is, understand what made America.”

But politically, Mr. Bush must satisfy his most conservative supporters. Many of them view illegal immigration as a strain on schools, the health care system and the economy, and some have warned that in their opinion the nation’s cultural identity could be washed away by a flood of low-income Spanish-speaking workers.

Coincidentally (?) Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei have a front page piece in today’s WaPo entitled, “Immigration Debate Is Shaped by ’08 Election.”

President Bush’s effort to secure lawful employment opportunities for illegal immigrants is evolving into an early battle of the 2008 presidential campaign, as his would-be White House successors jockey for position ahead of next week’s immigration showdown in the Senate. Bush called on Congress yesterday to tone down the increasingly sharp and divisive rhetoric over immigration, as he renewed his push for a guest-worker plan that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to continue working in the United States. But Bush’s political sway is already weakened by public unease about the war in Iraq and by Republican divisions.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whom Bush helped elect as party leader, is threatening to bring a new immigration bill to the Senate floor early next week. It would tighten control of the nation’s borders without creating the guest-worker program the president wants. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a rival of Frist’s for the Republican nomination, is promoting Bush’s call for tougher border security and the guest-worker program as he embraces the president to shore up his standing with Republican leaders. In the House, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) is garnering support for a long-shot presidential bid with his fierce anti-immigration rhetoric.

And after weeks of sitting on the sidelines, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) jumped into the immigration debate Wednesday. She declared that Republican efforts to criminalize undocumented workers and their support networks “would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.”

The ironies here abound. For one thing, contra Clinton, undocumented workers are already criminals. Their presence here is in violation of longstanding U.S. law.

Further, while the GOP is indeed split on this issue, so are the Democrats. Clinton is taking the poll tested, politically popular approach in a break with the liberal wing of her party. But just as the GOP has its paleocons and its economic libertarians, the Democrats have its racial identity faction and its labor unionists. GOP opposition to immigration stems from concerns over border security and control of the culture while Democrat opposition is motivated by the driving down of wages for some of its core consitituents. Conversely, GOP support for more loosened immigatration policies is motivated by either a desire for cheap labor or providing opportunity for the downtrodden while the Democrats on that side of the issue are motivated by the both belief that our current immigration policy is racist and by the fact that Latin American immigrants (minus Cubans) are a natural constituency.

While I am of very mixed views on the subject, having some sympathies with the cultural conservatives on the language/culture argument, I ultimately come down on the side of having our laws aligned with reality. Americans want the benefits of cheap foreign labor but none of the associated problems. As a result, we have a mishmash of contradictory policies (it’s illegal to be here but we will nonetheless collect taxes, issue official licences, educate the children, but may send you back on a random basis) many of which are impossible to enforce or which we have no desire to enforce.

On principle, I oppose amnesty programs for those who are here illegally because rewarded bad behavior is bad policy. Practically, however, it is not clear that we have the stomach to do anything else. In any case, we should certainly make it easier to come to the United States to work legally so that we can track activity over our borders more easily.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jonk says:

    Time to enforce our laws, period. If I have to pay 5$ for my head of lettuce because if it, so be it…I can garden quite well myself for my produce.

    I will call it my Victory Garden.

  2. DaveD says:

    I think the Democratic Party realizes it needs to pad its constituency at least beyond the African American vote which is beginning to show signs of interest in some aspects of the Republican message. The Hispanic vote is the logical alternative. Hillary is especially needy in this regard since her future aspirations are on the national level. So, how do the Democrats agree with Bush without making it look like they are agreeing with Bush?
    I was raised in a relatively conservative area of the country and folks my parents age associate a rise in local crime with a growing Hispanic population. Bush’s message on this issue just doesn’t play there and is interpreted as a weakness in his mantra of having strong homeland security.
    I laughed at Hillary invoking the name of Jesus. She has come from a White House obsessed with polls and I am sure this is going to be (at least partially) her undoing at some point.

  3. Evil Progressive says:

    The Republicans are split all right.

    …On the matter of sending the Mexican help home BEFORE or AFTER said help is finished with mowing lawns, cleaning houses, cooking, cleaning pools, and raising children, for the gringos…

    It’s a tough decision!

  4. James Joyner says:

    EP: Surely, you’re not arguing that wealthy liberals are free from the sin of hiring illegal aliens to do their dirty work for them?

  5. Jonk says:

    Tongue firmly in Cheek Alert:

    In the end, we don’t need 12 million proles, we need about 2 million tops…I don’t need 6 guys bidding to do my lawn…send the rest home.

  6. floyd says:

    how could it be easier to come to the U.S.? in illinois , illegals are given priority treatment for education, medical insurance,welfare, and now even daycare[pre-school&headstart]. some banks even offer special mortgage rates for illegals. it is now almost impossible for a U.S. citizen to get work in roofing, electrical, concrete, or drywall in new construction. this does not result in lower prices, it only results in fat pockets for developers and politicians;while illegals are exploited, taxpayers are burdened to unbearable levels.