Who would have thunk it but when it comes to immigration, the king of conservative talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, might have
become the most progressive voice in America today. Limbaugh has done more than any human alive over the last two decades to kill any immigration bill that smacked of "amnesty." Yet there was El Rushbo telling Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday that he would be willing to go along with permanent citizenship—not merely legal permanent residency, mind you—for "whatever number" of undocumented immigrants on one simple condition. And what's this condition? Building a border wall? Nope. Enhancing border security by forcing taxpayers to spring for more boots on the ground and whiz-bang satellite surveillance etc? Niyat. Cuts in legal immigration? No.
Banning amnesty recipients from voting for 15-25 years. That's it.
Limbaugh said, "I would be willing right here to support an effort to grant
permanent citizenship to whatever number of illegal immigrants there are in
the country tomorrow if you will make as part of a deal they can't vote for
15 to 25 years. And if they will agree to that, then I'll grant them
This is a far more modest demand in exchange for a far more generous deal than any offered by the four immigration bills that went down to defeat in the Senate Friday. Trump's constant vilification has killed talk of legalizing the entire 11 million strong undocumented population not only among Republicans but also Democrats. Hence, none of the bills even considered handing citizenship to anyone other than the 1.8 million Dreamers—a nickname for those who were brought to America illegally as children.
The Secure and Succeed Act, the brainchild of arch restrictionists like Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that the White House supported, in theory offered a pathway to citizenship for all the Dreamers. But it put so many conditions on who could qualify that, in practice, Cato Institute's David Bier and National Foundation for American Policy's Stuart Anderson argued, less than 900,000 Dreamers could have availed of it. That plan would have also handed Trump $25 billion to build his big, beautiful wall, killed the diversity visa program and slashed family-based immigration, effectively cutting legal immigration by a good 40 percent. It was the stuff of nativist wet dreams.
Sen. Pat Toomey's bill offered amnesty to no one but wanted to defund sanctuary cities. Meanwhile, the Coons-McCain bill would have offered a genuine pathway to citizenship for all Dreamers in exchange for handing the administration money for enhanced border security.
And then there was Sen. Susan Collins' (R-ME) "Common Sense" plan that would have provided $25 billion for border security and banned Dreamers from sponsoring their parents in exchange for giving them a path to citizenship.
The last bill came the closest to obtaining the requisite 60 votes to move ahead and the Trump-backed one the least, a resounding blow to the nativist agenda.
Indeed, it is thanks to the overreaching by White House aide, Steve Miller, an arch nativist, that Trump couldn't close the deal after Democrats had all but resigned themselves to giving him his beloved wall. He literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. So much for deal making and winning "bigly."
Be that as it may, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is now trying to overcome the impasse by scaling back legalization even more. He is working on a bill that would hand Dreamers a few years of reprieve from deportation in exchange for enhanced border security funding.
But there is no reason for Flake and other Congressional immigration doves to be this timid if Limbaugh is willing to be so bold. Limbaugh is a pretty good gauge of grassroots conservative sentiment on this issue if for no other reason than he is among its chief architects. Indeed, he is the one who—contra Ronald Reagan—turned amnesty into a dirty word by whipping up rank-and-file Republicans against "lawbreakers."
Nor is Limbaugh merely kidding. He actually proposed something similar five years ago. The proposal is essentially an admission that the true reason conservatives hate amnesty isn't because undocumented immigrants are more crime prone, as a recent spate of highly questionable restrictionist studies have tried to show. Nor does it have anything to do with illegals being welfare queens given that no one works harder than an illegal immigrant. Employment among undocumented males is 90-plus percent. Furthermore, illegals by and large shun states with generous welfare benefits flocking toward those with plentiful jobs instead. Nor is this about protecting native jobs and wages because, research has repeatedly shown, immigrants compete with other immigrants, not natives.
In short, anti-immigration animus in the GOP has less to do with ideological restrictionism and more to do with partisan politics. Conservatives oppose amnesty because they fear that immigrants will vote Democratic. (This is a massive misperception at best and a self-fulfilling prophecy at worst. Immigrants aren't congenitally wired to be Democrats given that before the GOP started hating them, they didn't hate it. Indeed, 44 percent of Hispanics and a majority of Muslims voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Asian Americans veered Republican until around 1996 when the GOP experienced an earlier burst of restrictionism.)
Limbaugh's candor about the true motives of conservatives is refreshing. But, more importantly, it opens up interesting possibilities for overcoming the current logjam in Congress.
At this stage, all pro-immigration Republicans would jump at this proposal, of course. But so would Republicans who are towing a hardline on immigration not because they are ideological restrictionists but because they fear the wrath of Limbaugh's foot soldiers. I would wager that this is the source of anti-immigrant animus of the vast majority of immigration hawks. However, with Limbaugh using his firepower to give them cover to do an amnesty bill, they can relax. Heck, they could call the bill Rush's Deferred Citizenship plan if it helps to sell it to his base.
It'll also win immigration advocates. All they've been looking for right now is a poison-free bill that simply legalizes Dreamers. They will surely go for one that legalizes Dreamers' parents as well. Democrats might want voting rights for these folks, but they themselves could care lest about that. They are far more interested in being able live and work openly without fear of deportation than making a schlep to the polls.
In any case, if Democrats resist, their true motives will become clear. They'll be seen as heartless hacks selling out a vulnerable population for partisan gain proving Trump right when he says they don't care about Dreamers, just keeping the issue alive to win elections. And if they don't, they'll be playing second fiddle to Republicans.
Just like it took a security hawk like Nixon to make peace with China, it might take immigration hawks like Limbaugh to get a clean amnesty deal done. Limbaugh might have thrown Republicans a lifeline to pull them out from the hole they've dug themselves into. They should take it—and then run with it.