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The truth about Republicans, Congress and immigration reform

 

“Immigration reform is dead,” wrote Ezra Klein the day after college professor Dave Brat defeated House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va). In this narrative, Cantor was an instrumental deal-maker unseated by the Tea Party rabble rousers. His loss scuttled prospects for reform. 

But wait. For months prior, arguably years prior, Cantor had been portrayed as the main roadblock to immigration reform, according to none other than Ezra Klein and a thousand other pundit and media portrayals over the past few years. Confused?

There are roughly 40 million American residents who were born elsewhere, and half of them are now citizens.

Immigration reform in Washington has been dying, or rather undying, for so many political seasons that hearing about it dying yet again is like binge-watching the "Walking Dead." The narrative of anti-immigrant conservatives has officially jumped the shark.

If Cantor was guilty of something, it’s not conspiring for amnesty (as Brat claimed) or obstructionism (as Klein claimed) but for the Beltway art of endlessly debating an issue as George Will noted, even running on it election after election, while passing no laws to fix the problem. 

Lesson learned? In the absence of real legislation, conspiracy theories about your agenda fill the void.

The truth is that Republican voters just do not fit the racist/nativist stereotype. 

A new survey of Republican voters commissioned by Doug Holtz-Eakin earlier this month confirms that 56 percent oppose amnesty but favor granting some kind of earned legal status to illegal migrants. 

What Main Street voters are fed up with is the false choice between two extremes, amnesty or deportation. They are tired of being told that America needs a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants when the reality is that America already has a pathway for over 1 million legal immigrants per year that is working well. 

Our system of immigration needs to be improved, but voters are well aware of the gamesmanship in the Democrat-led Senate’s all-or-nothing push for a comprehensive bill. 

The House approach with a series of smaller, practical bills is better. If President Obama gets out of campaign mode, the prospect for pragmatic, non-partisan reform in the wake of Cantor’s primary loss are actually better than before. But it has to be based on facts.

In recent months, my colleagues at the Hoover Institution have worked to put together a new, online journal called Peregrine in which scholars left, right, and center propose and vote on a wide array of immigration policy reforms. 

The inaugural issue will be published next week. What we’ve learned is that immigration in the United States is a much bigger, more complex issue than the hot-button topic of “illegals.”

Did you know that 3 in 4 immigrants in the United States are legal residents? America is the number one country in the world in terms of the raw number of immigrants we welcome, including thousands of refugees. There are roughly 40 million American residents who were born elsewhere, and half of them are now citizens.

Common sense tells us that America can have secure borders that prevent illegal entry while also opening its gateways to more legal immigrants. 

We can expand opportunities for foreign guest workers, verify workplace status with modern technologies, while limiting exploitation of America’s welfare systems by non-citizens. 

If Congress would break up the comprehensive approach so that these smaller issues can get the attention they deserve, the false choices melt away.

Based on our preliminary research, here’s how Congress can begin:

America’s pathway to legal citizenship is big, but also skewed so that many of the most talented people in the world have no chance to come here legally. This June, millions of college students are graduating with science, math, and engineering degrees from America’s universities. An outsize proportion of these young Einsteins are foreign born and federal law requires them to leave immediately. No major think tank in Washington, and I’ve looked at this, thinks this policy is smart.

What’s dead is not immigration reform, but rather comprehensive immigration reform. Hopefully that zombie will stay down this time, because it was never going anywhere. 

As for nervous incumbents in both parties, they could do much to avoid Cantor’s fate by passing actual legislation. It’s a cheaper and more effective way to get re-elected than a $5 million dollar campaign.

Tim Kane is a full time Research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Kane is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, San Diego. He is co-author (with Glenn Hubbard) of "Balance: Why Great Powers Lose It and How America Can Regain It," (Simon & Schuster 2013).