In Praise of Half Measures

Published December 3, 2012

The Weekly Standard

As soon as the presidential election was over and the exit polling results began to pour in, some on the right (and many outside it) started arguing that the Republican party needed to change its tune on immigration. To avoid being left behind by the country’s changing demographics, the argument goes, the GOP must vastly improve its appeal to Hispanic voters, and the way to do this is to hop on the bandwagon of “comprehensive immigration reform,” which means a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants now in our country illegally, greater openness to more legal immigration, and the promise of better border security in the future, all in one grand bill.

Advocates of this approach insist that it is what Hispanic voters want, and therefore what must be done to win them. But Republicans should be careful to avoid the lure of that argument. It is based on an overreading of exit polls, it proposes a cynical transactional relationship between policy and politics that is unbecoming of a serious political party, and like most “comprehensive” policy programs it manages simultaneously to offer too much and too little. America certainly needs immigration reform, but it doesn’t need another comprehensive liberal makeover.

To begin with, Mitt Romney did not lose this election because he failed to win enough Hispanic voters. He did perform inadequately with that group, earning only 27 percent of their vote–a modest decline from the 31 percent won by John McCain. But this election did not suggest that demographic trends are overtaking the Republican party. The electorate was slightly more Hispanic (10 percent as opposed to 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004), but far more significant was a decline in voter participation among working-class white voters, to whom Romney clearly had trouble appealing. It appears to have been Romney’s economic message, not his immigration views, that accounted for his margin of loss.

And this appears to have been the case with voters of all races. Hispanic voters told exit pollsters that the economy mattered to them most of all–60 percent of them put it first, essentially identical to the 59 percent of all voters who did. And their views on economic issues suggest they are a liberal voting bloc at this point, quite apart from immigration.

Republicans should certainly strive to address Hispanic voters with open arms and a welcoming tone, as any party should address all voters. But what they offer them should be the same thing they offer to voters of any other background: a conservative message of economic growth and social mobility, traditional moral values, and a strong national defense.

A political party is not just a vehicle for getting elected but a vehicle for enacting a certain vision of the common good. The Republican party will stand or fall on the strength of its vision, and on the appeal of that vision to voters. It could never compete with the Democrats on the field of transactional politics–delivering favors to interest groups who then deliver voters in return. It can only win by translating conservative principles into policy ideas that address public problems and reinforce America’s strengths.

Such ideas are certainly much needed in the arena of immigration. Our legal immigration system has grown aimless and counterproductive and is increasingly disconnected from both America’s economic interests and its -ideals. And although illegal immigration has slowed significantly in recent years (thanks to both a weaker economy and greater enforcement), truly stemming the flow and deciding how to address the 11 million who are here without legal permission is a daunting challenge.

If they approach the immigration question not as an electoral emergency demanding swift capitulation to the Democrats’ agenda but as a national challenge requiring an application of conservative principles to reform a set of critical public institutions, Republicans will find their way to a far superior set of immigration reforms–reforms that are each rather modest and discrete, that need not be pursued all at once in a single huge package, and that are therefore also better suited to providing real solutions than yet another “comprehensive” policy adventure.

Our approach to immigration must be grounded in an idea of citizenship. After all, our immigration system is how we elevate foreign newcomers into Americans. Yet civic formation and assimilation are entirely missing from the left’s “comprehensive” immigration program. They should be central to any conservative immigration reform.

The security of national borders is an essential component of modern sovereignty, and all the more important in the age of terrorism. Getting the southern border under control should not be a bargaining chip but rather an end in itself–and a crucial one.

Our immigration system must also serve rather than undermine our economic interests, which means we cannot ignore the fact that a glut of low-skill immigrants is hurting the economic chances of the most hardpressed Americans while a shortage of high-skill immigrants leaves our most productive sectors understaffed. A basic reordering of legal immigration in light of economic priorities is necessary for our future prosperity, quite apart from any political implications.

The challenge of handling the 11 million immigrants present here without authorization is an immense legal, social, and moral dilemma. It, too, cannot simply be treated as a bargaining chip but must be considered on its own terms. Mass deportation is neither desirable nor possible, but a ready path to citizenship without consequences is not appropriate either. We will need to find a series of middling options that mix compassion with prudence, humanitarianism with a respect for the law, in a variety of ways suited to the varying circumstances of this enormous population. It would certainly be much easier to begin that work once the border is under control, rather than holding America’s sovereignty and security hostage to the progressive desire for a comprehensive transformation of American immigration.

Skepticism about comprehensive transformations should apply well beyond immigration. Indeed, it is one of the great contributions of conservatism to American political thought, and its wisdom is well demonstrated by the assorted comprehensive transformations already wrought in the Obama years–most notably the transformations of health care and financial regulation. In each case, a gargantuan new statute seeks to do far too many things at once and yet (or rather, therefore) manages to leave the most basic problems unaddressed. Hidden in the greasy creases of these corpulent bills are loads of imperious and often contradictory directives, comically specific injunctions and rules alongside appallingly vague grants of executive discretion, unprecedented expansions of government power, and unavoidable technical errors magnified into fiascos–but no means for slowing the growth of health costs and no end to the “too big to fail” regime.

These comprehensive laws aim to transform American government, rather than address discrete problems. They are the epitome of progressive policy-making. And a similar approach to immigration would be no less harmful or misguided. What our immigration system requires is not a transformation in the mold of the welfare state but an application of American constitutional principles to address specific problems through targeted reforms. It requires an approach that builds on what is best to improve what is worst.

In other words, it requires an applied conservatism. If the Republican party offered that to the public, it would surely find itself in better stead with voters, whatever their race, creed, or color.

Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.

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