Wednesday, February 27th, 2013
In this week’s edition of the Weekly Standard, Boston College professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Peter Skerry (who joined us last January at AEI to discuss “The Muslim-American Muddle”) takes a look at current proposals for immigration reform and a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. His advice? “Republicans must keep their immigration proposals tough, fair, and simple.”
President Obama and the Democrats have made clear that their “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants should be as direct as possible. Many Republicans are not sure they want any such path. Those who do, like Senator John McCain, call for “a long and arduous process.” His fellow Arizona senator Jeff Flake agrees: “As more people learn of all these requirements that are put in place—back taxes, pay a fine, learn English not just for citizenship, to get your green card—and learn that it’s going to take a while, they’ll be more comfortable with this path.” Yet the longer and more arduous this path, and the more twists and turns it involves, the less effective it will be in reassuring Americans that illegal immigrants aren’t being given an unfair advantage.
Republican lawmakers are appropriately attentive to such anxieties, but in the aftermath of the November elections, they are also straining to be fair to millions of undocumented immigrants, who came here, after all, because other Americans wanted to hire them. To negotiate this minefield, Republicans should consider simpler options that offer prompt relief to the undocumented, while imposing fewer complicated rules and penalties that necessarily get administered by government bureaucracies in which so many Americans justifiably lack confidence. . . .
The irony is that as Republican lawmakers attempt to respond to popular outrage about illegal immigration, they turn to procedures and agencies that their constituents typically—and justifiably—distrust. Put another way, Republican immigration reformers are relying heavily on an administrative state whose routine functioning is the source of much of the disaffection with government on which their party’s political success has been based.
When it comes to immigration policy, popular skepticism is not misguided. Americans’ diffuse anxiety about illegal immigration is no match for the narrower, well-organized immigrant advocates who will be litigating in the federal courts, plying the halls of Congress and the agencies, and working the media long after voters have focused on some other issue. Americans may not be able to articulate this scenario, but they feel in their bones that something is wrong when their elected representatives in Washington resort to such complicated schemes.
There is no silver bullet here. Given the institutional context within which Republicans must function, there is no avoiding such dilemmas. But Republicans must manage them skillfully and avoid alienating their base as they struggle to address immigration more responsibly than they have in the recent past.