The GOP's Immigration Problem

Republican candidates need to brush up on the laws of economics.


In a recent interview, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor explained why the congressional GOP has left immigration reform to wither on the vine: President Obama will not accept anything but an omnibus overhaul of the entire system. Republicans would be happy to pass pieces of immigration reform everyone agrees on, but the president won't take yes for an answer. Every time the House tries to get something done, Democrats move the goalposts.

That's one problem. Here's another: David Brat.

Brat is challenging Cantor in the GOP primary. A while back he wrote a piece for The Daily Caller on why he is doing so. Brat mentions Obamacare once. He mentions "amnesty" seven times. Conservatives of the sort who turn out for Republican primaries despise amnesty and anything like it. Therefore Brat says things like this:

While we all welcome the revival of American manufacturing, much of corporate America seems to believe this can only be achieved with cheap immigrant labor, and hence their pressure to facilitate new waves of massive immigration and promote amnesty for those who have entered this country illegally. This, while millions of our friends and neighbors are looking for work all across the labor market at all levels of skill and education.

Brat should know better. First, Cantor opposes blanket amnesty. Second, Brat—who has a Ph.D. in economics and who teaches it at Randolph-Macon College—does not seem the sort to support imposing tariffs and quotas on the cross-border trade in goods. No doubt he could explain at great length why such artificial restrictions hurt the economy. But the laws of economics apparently do not apply to labor—at least not when you're running in a Republican primary.

Brat has a lot of company in the GOP base, which is full of voices denouncing amnesty. Amnesty, apparently, means anything short of mass deportation. To immigration hawks who share such a Brattitude, even a path to citizenship that involved paying thousands of dollars in fines and fees, and a decade long provisional legal status without access to any federal benefits, is far too lenient. Round 'em up and ship 'em out.

Few—if any—Republicans make the opposite case: that immigrants are a net gain for the country and should be welcomed regardless of whether they have a government permission slip to enter the country. And immigrants are a net gain: They are more likely to start a business. They are more likely to own a small business. And they are more likely to grow it into a large one: 40 percent of the founders of Fortune 500 companies are immigrants or their children.

Immigrant business owners employ nearly 5 million Americans.

Indeed, immigrant men are more likely to work in general: As a recent piece in National Affairs noted, "Among all men in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64, illegal immigrants are the most likely to be working. In 2009, for example, 93 percent of undocumented men participated in the labor force, compared to 86 percent of legal-immigrant men and 81 percent of native-born men." Immigrant women, in the meantime, are more likely to stay home with the kids. Hence immigrant families are more likely to represent the traditional family values conservatives prefer than traditional American families themselves.

Immigrants—including illegal immigrants—also commit less crime than native-born U.S. residents… although the children and grandchildren of immigrants do show an increasing proclivity to lawlessness. Perhaps that results from their assimilation into U.S. culture?

Yet conservatives grow apoplectic at proposals to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows. Why? Some of the objection is deontological: Rules are rules, after all, and we should not reward people for breaking them. You can see the sense in that: If an immigrant can ignore U.S. entry laws, then why not let him also ignore U.S. food-safety laws or environmental-protection laws? Do we enforce the laws that are on the books, or not?

(To that, there is an equally deontological reply: If someone wants to get a job, buy a house, purchase food and clothes and other consumer goods, and so on—and other people are happy to hire him and sell him things—what right does any third party have to interfere in those free and consensual exchanges?)

A second objection is more pragmatic and less virtuous: Letting illegal immigrants stay in the U.S. only encourages more illegal immigration. But this is a question-begging answer. Why is the arrival of more foreign nationals necessarily to be a bad thing? For decades the U.S. had no immigration restrictions whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, the country's borders were open—and they stayed that way until the Chinese Exclusion Act. Even then, non-Asians enjoyed open U.S. borders until the 1920s.

Some conservatives make an even less elevated argument: Increasing immigration might increase the Democratic vote, leading the GOP to perpetual minority status. (Ann Coulter has been beating this particular drum lately.) But this is also a question-begging answer. It ignores the fact that, for instance, conservatives have won over immigrants in Canada. It also ignores a point columnist Shikha Dalmia has drawn out in Reason: Even well-off minority groups such as Indian-Americans and Jews lean Democratic in the U.S.—not because they harbor an inherent love for entitlements, but because of the GOP's hostility to minorities.

That hostility is most visible in the GOP's ferocious attitude toward immigration. Republicans claim to favor free trade and limited government. Then they advocate massive federal spending increases to militarize the border. They start telling private businesses whom they can and cannot hire. They demand oppressive biometric national-ID systems so the authorities can keep a constant, watchful eye over everyone. And they demand the construction of giant walls to keep out people whose only offense is wanting to build a better life for themselves and their families.

When Republicans complain that immigrants vote Democratic, they are getting cause and effect exactly backward. If Republicans want to win over immigrants, then they needn't do anything more than live up to their principles. The question is: Do they?