Nothing is so fatal to a nation as an extreme of self-partiality, and the total want of consideration of what others will naturally hope or fear.
— Edmund Burke

In the past decade, the United States has experienced dramatic levels of illegal border crossings by immigrants seeking a better life. At the same time, policy makers in Washington have struggled over what to do about this, and have managed to do very little.

For conservatives in particular, the immigration debate has been a costly conundrum. Most recently the Bush administration suffered a major setback when its comprehensive immigration reform legislation failed. Apart from the secretive and hurried nature of the effort, a major factor in its defeat was the president’s inability to win the support of his own party.

Conflicting positions on the right have prevented Republicans from addressing illegal immigration in a cohesive manner. Is there any hope that common ground can be reached?


Democrats had an easy summer. The party is getting adjusted to leading both houses of Congress, its presidential candidates are drawing large crowds and big donations, and Democrats have stood by while the opposing party cuts itself up over illegal immigration. Most of this bickering preceded the defeat of S 1639, the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007. Since its failure the Republicans have occupied themselves trying to look tough by seeking to deny benefits to illegal immigrants. That does not constitute visionary leadership.

The failure of conservatives to make headway on illegal immigration stems from the disparate views within their ranks. Differing principles and priorities lead to wildly different attitudes toward the problem. Republicans lack a clear vision for deciding among competing principles and a leader who has the full trust of the party. Their constituency, and the public, is ill-served.

One perspective shared by many, including some in the Bush administration, could be characterized as pragmatic. The pragmatists favor comprehensive measures to reform immigration, linking border security, employer enforcement, a temporary worker program, and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. As stated in a White House fact sheet, “All elements of this issue must be addressed together—or none of them will be solved.” With 12 million or more illegal residents already in the country, the status quo is considered unacceptable, yet deporting them is seen as unrealistic. The pragmatic approach, then, is being willing to offer amnesty in exchange for action.

A second faction in favor of reform focuses on the economic benefits of immigration. In a report timed to bolster support for President Bush’s comprehensive plan, Edward P. Lazear, a Hoover senior fellow and chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, stated that “our review of economic research finds immigrants not only help fuel the nation’s economic growth, but also have an overall positive effect on the income of native-born workers.” The issue of legal versus illegal immigrants is less important to those espousing an economic perspective; workers are workers whatever their resident status. The report says immigrants contribute to productivity growth, technological advancement, and entrepreneurship, and are unfairly accused by immigration-reform opponents of failing to assimilate, committing crimes, and distorting entitlement and tax structures.

Yet another contingent of conservatives sees the issue through a lens of compassion. An open letter on immigration issued by the Independent Institute, a free market think tank, and signed by dozens of economists asserted that “immigration is the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised.” Others on the right, including some religious groups, argue that illegal immigrants should not be punished for simply trying to feed their families. And former chief presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, in defending comprehensive immigration reform against “nativists” within the Republican Party, wrote, “All of us, ultimately, are strangers in this world and brothers to the bone; and all in need of amnesty.”

A perspective that cuts both ways concerns the political implications of granting citizenship, and the voting rights that go with it, to millions of illegal immigrants. Because the vast majority of illegal residents are of Mexican or other Latin American descent (81 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center), and because Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, some Republican legislators may be pursuing their own self-interest by opposing reforms that include a pathway to citizenship. It’s not an argument that will be spoken aloud on the Senate floor, but it is a concern. By contrast, the demographic reality—that Hispanics are both the largest and the fastest-growing minority group in the United States—suggests an opportunity for Republicans. Gerson insists that “if the Republican Party cannot find ways to appeal to natural entrepreneurs, with strong family values, who are focused on education and social mobility, then the GOP is already dead.” Judging by the large rallies in support of Bush’s comprehensive reform bill, some on the right see amnesty as a surefire way to appeal to this growing population.

Conservatives have failed to make headway on illegal immigration because of clashing views. Differing principles and priorities lead to wildly different attitudes toward the problem

Politics aside, conservatives who oppose comprehensive immigration reform and its path to citizenship often begin with an appeal to law and order. This position is staked out as both a matter of enforcing the law of the land and a national security concern. As Edwin Meese III wrote for the Heritage Foundation:

Immigration is no exception to the principle that the rule of law requires the fair, firm, and equitable enforcement of the law. Congress should require and provide resources to enforce immigration laws within the United States, and individuals unlawfully present in the United States should not be rewarded with amnesty.

Such appeals to national security have less to do with migrant Mexican farmworkers and more to do with seeking confidence in our ability to stop terrorists who might exploit our fractured border enforcement.

Amid debates among economists and policy analysts, some conservatives worry about the impact illegal immigration has on wages and welfare. The supposed impact on jobs, as espoused by Harvard professor George Borjas in a New York Times Magazine article, is that “immigrants hurt the economic prospects of the Americans they compete with. . . especially African- Americans.” Separate research on welfare participation among Hispanics has led conservative scholar Robert Rector to write that “it seems likely that if Hispanic illegal immigrants are given permanent residence and citizenship, they and their children will likely assimilate into the culture of high welfare use, . . . impos[ing] significant costs on taxpayers and society as a whole.”

What if conservatives were to approach the issue of illegal immigration as they have the welfare state, itself a byproduct of poverty?

Conservatives are also concerned with the social and cultural effects of illegal immigration. This highly charged topic can easily give way to accusations of nativism, on the one hand, and selective denial of the real problems behind illegal immigration, on the other. In essence, opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are disturbed by a number of perceived trends—high crime rates of illegal immigrants, low educational achievement, and rising out-of-wedlock births—that contribute to long-term poverty and welfare dependency. “The huge immigration surge is straining schools, hospitals, and other social services,” according to David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute. Providing amnesty to illegal immigrants, it is argued, will only encourage more to head north, further eroding the social fabric of our nation.

Recalling Edmund Burke’s words above, Republicans who fail to see beyond their own claims regarding illegal immigration are placing our nation at great risk.


One inescapable truth concerning the rise of illegal immigration is that poverty drives people to cross over. A leading expert on the economic consequences of immigration, Gordon H. Hanson, has stated that “one obvious reason [for foreign residents’ migration to the United States] is that U.S. real wages far exceed those in many other countries.” Other things affect who actually leaves Mexico—border-crossing costs, education levels, and even language skills—but wages are the key.

Wages matter to both legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico because standards of living there are very low. GDP per capita in the United States is more than four times as high as in Mexico, by 2006 estimates. Although conditions south of the U.S. border have improved in recent years, poverty rates remain high. According to the World Bank, more than 45 percent of Mexico’s people were living in moderate poverty in 2005; for extreme poverty, the total was 18 percent. Thus, approximately 46.4 million Mexicans were living on $2 per day, and 18.6 million survived on just $1 per day. Border Patrol activities and U.S. penalties for hiring illegal workers are important factors in regulating the flow of illegal immigration, but at its heart immigration remains a poverty phenomenon.

Republicans who championed the 1996 welfare reform understood the transformative power of work. The irony in the immigration debate is that this foundational principle is already in action, albeit illegally.

What if conservatives approached the issue of illegal immigration as they have the welfare state, itself a byproduct of poverty? How might this help Republicans sift their competing perspectives, prioritize immigration reform proposals, and present a unified agenda consistent with the central principles of welfare reform? What might this look like?

First and foremost, welfare reform eliminated the entitlement to cash assistance. Benefits were no longer guaranteed by the federal government solely on a claim of need. Today, a strain of the entitlement mentality runs through supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. What is amnesty if not an expression of entitlement? Conservatives should affirm that citizenship is a privilege and a responsibility, not a right. Illegal immigrants are not entitled to citizenship, whether based on their economic plight, their residency in the United States, or their contributions to our workforce. Conservatives who argue otherwise are looking for an easy out.

Of course, the end to welfare entitlement depended on the government enforcing the law by sanctioning recipients who failed to abide by work and behavioral requirements. Those sanctions and high levels of work participation led to dramatic decreases in welfare rolls and rising incomes during the past 10 years. Likewise, immigration laws need to be enforced. Some experts have proposed a two-step process for re-establishing our immigration regulations: a short, once-only grace period for registering illegal entrants as temporary workers—and registering their employers, as well—and, second, strict enforcement. This prudent approach can help root out the black market in illegal labor, making room for a regulated, lower-skilled temporary worker program without severe social, economic, or political costs.

Another lesson from welfare reform is that work opportunities are the key to raising families out of poverty. The Republicans who championed the 1996 welfare reform understood how work can raise incomes, build wealth and self-esteem, and bring hope to generations trapped in welfare. The irony in the immigration debate is that this principle is already in action, albeit illegally. Rather than tear down the poverty-fighting formula of migrant labor, conservatives (more than anyone else) should embrace a comprehensive guest-worker program. As Hoover fellow Timothy Charles Brown pointed out in a recent Hoover Digest article, “A revenue-producing program that manages the movement of workers in and out of the U.S. economy could maximize its benefits to all four major stakeholders—the workers, their employers, the countries the workers come from, and the American taxpayers.” When conservatives identified with the plight of welfare dependents, they ushered in a new era of opportunity. They can do it again by considering the hopes of million of illegal immigrants.

Finally, welfare reform set a five-year limit for most able-bodied adults receiving assistance, after which assistance would end. The limit encourages recipients to move early toward self-sufficiency, preserving the later years as a safety net for future setbacks. The limit also cuts out abusers of the system, those who are capable of but not motivated to change. Such dependence deterring can have a similar effect through legal immigration quotas, temporary work visas, and employment permits. The U.S. economy should not serve as a permanent safety net for the Mexican government, a place to outsource domestic problems like unemployment, illiteracy, and malnutrition.

Reducing illegal immigration and more effectively controlling legal immigration will signal that it’s time for Mexico, in Hoover senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson’s words, to “bring itself up to the levels of affluence found in the United States by embracing market reforms of the sort we have seen in South Korea, Taiwan, and China.” And just as welfare reform provides support services like child care to enable mothers to work, the United States can promote freedom, property rights, and the rule of law to foster a dynamic, growing economy in Mexico.

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A new report by the National Conference of State Legislatures says state lawmakers are increasingly trying to remedy Congress’s failure to overhaul immigration policy. New state laws touching on immigration are at times inconsistent, but even in this there is hope, for the origins of welfare reform can be traced back to a similar time of federal incoherence and state response. It was the states, led largely by conservative governors such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, that innovated, demonstrated, and eventually persuaded President Clinton to end welfare as we know it. Could federalism do it again, ending illegal immigration as we know it?

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