The GOP's Self-Destructive Position on Immigration

Shutting the border because of affirmative action shows that conservatives will use any argument against immigration.


It's hard to imagine how the Republican Party can make things worse for itself with Hispanic voters, yet it keeps trying.

Given the stakes, especially in crucial swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, you would think that Mitt Romney, the great flip-flopper, would repudiate his own harsh anti-immigration rhetoric at least, especially his pledge to pursue policies that would cause unauthorized Hispanics to "self-deport." He can't because his party's growing nativism has left him little room to maneuver.

Consider the revival of this old trope in some conservative circles: Thanks to liberal programs such as affirmative action (and welfare), the U.S. is attracting the "wrong" kind of immigrants—those who come for handouts, not opportunity. These newcomers, the argument goes, are a natural liberal constituency, which is why Democrats want more of them through open immigration. The only way for conservatives to take back the country from liberals and level the field for natives is by closing the borders.

Yes, Romney and some conservatives make a distinction between low-skilled illegal workers and highly skilled ones, advocating tougher restrictions for the former. But some Republicans are giving forums to the voices and organizations that want to stop all immigration, legal and illegal —at least temporarily—on grounds that the more multiethnic America becomes, the harder it will be to roll back racial preferences.

The argument is that the strong Hispanic presence has subverted the original intention of the Civil Rights Act. Instead of ending racial discrimination against blacks and creating a colorblind society, the law has been expanded to include ethnic preferences for all minorities. Restrictionists say that employers who would otherwise resist racial preferences—that is, if they had to hire black Americans—have become fans of such policies because they can hire cheaper workers and from a deeper labor pool.

Sealing the border to deal with affirmative action, however, is wrongheaded for many reasons.

If racial preferences are a problem for these conservatives, why not tackle them directly? Such policies might already be on their way out, given the tough questioning by Supreme Court justices this month at a hearing on Fisher v. University of Texas, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the university's race-conscious admissions policies. 

Indeed, Asian Americans, who face reverse discrimination in college admissions, having to score higher than even whites to get in, have become opponents of affirmative action, lending a lie to the restrictionist claim that immigrants reflexively back these programs. The plaintiff's brief in Fisher mentions Asian-Americans 22 times, arguing that they are victims of race-based admission practices.

To the extent that employers use affirmative action in their hiring decisions, it is partly to avoid risking action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Conservatives can push to change the agency's open-ended mandate, which is to make sure that hiring practices don't have a "disparate impact" on minorities, to a focus on investigating actual cases of discrimination. But by and large non-white immigrants manage to succeed without preferences, demonstrating that systemic racism is no longer a major barrier to success in America, undercutting affirmative action's core rationale.

What's more, you could argue, as Bryan Caplan of George Mason University does, that immigration restrictions themselves are the ultimate form of affirmative action—since they are intended to protect native workers.

The restrictionists have been using every argument they can lay their hands on. They claim that immigrants mooch off the welfare state when, in reality, the labor participation rate of undocumented men is 20 percentage points higher than that for native men while their welfare consumption is much lower. Restrictionists claim that the presence of illegal residents leads to more crime, when cities with a large number of them, such as El Paso, Texas, tend to be much safer.

Then there is the argument that government must crack down on this population for violating the rule of law. But the illegal presence in the U.S. is largely the result of a labyrinthine immigration system that offers few legal avenues for unskilled workers to enter and work in the country and none to obtain permanent residency.

The affirmative-action argument, however, exposes that restrictionism is an obsession in search of a rationale. It isn't animated by an appeal to fairness or excellence or economic prosperity or any other similar lofty goal that conservatives tout. It is about opposing immigration for its own sake. This pushes Hispanics into the arms of Democrats, a political wave that some Republicans then want to stop by shutting the border, not by abandoning their anti-immigrant tirades.

Hispanic support for Romney is about 15 percentage points lower than it was for George W. Bush's 40 percent support in 2004. In Colorado, a Latino Decisions poll shows that 69 percent of Hispanic voters favor President Barack Obama, with only 17 percent for Romney. In Nevada, the edge is 69 percent to 15 percent. In Florida, there is a 29-point gap.

This lopsided support for Obama is remarkable given how little attention he has paid to Hispanic concerns. He didn't even try to put comprehensive immigration reform on the table, much less fight for it, even though a poll of Hispanic voters last summer showed that the issue is second only to fixing the economy as a priority they would set for him. The Obama administration has deported almost as many illegals in four years as the Bush administration did in eight. The president waited until the eleventh hour to push the Dream Act, which would allow illegal minors to stay in the country.

If Obama has ignored Hispanics for the sake of his other priorities, such as health care, Republicans have singled them out as specific targets, turning immigrant bashing into something of a sport.

Obama told the Des Moines Register that a big reason he will be elected to a second term is because "the Republican nominee and the Republican Party has so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community." If he wins, he will be absolutely right.

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg View.