Opinion

Can any 2016 Republican wrestle immigration away from Donald Trump?

If the GOP wants to exorcise The Donald, it needs to stop ceding the issue

How does the Republican Party solve a problem like Donald Trump? The second coming of Ross Perot keeps rising in national polls of GOP voters, but his narrow appeal beyond the base doesn't look promising.

So far, having the chairman of the Republican National Committee try to rein Trump in doesn't seem to have worked. Neither has insulting his supporters, predictably enough. Waiting for the Trump bubble to burst, like that of so many gadfly candidates before him, may be a good long-term solution but doesn't mitigate the damage he'll do to the GOP brand in the meantime. Why not take away the issue that has helped more than any other to fuel the real estate tycoon's rise? That would be immigration.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has gone after both Trump — accusing him of "demagoguery and nonsense" — and the sanctuary cities that make it easier for illegal immigrants to roam undetected. But Perry wasn't able to hold his own with Mitt Romney on immigration, and Trump is an ever tougher foe.

As luck would have it, the latest entrant in the 2016 Republican nomination sweepstakes, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has flirted with immigration populism himself. There are questions about how settled or sincere Walker's immigration position is, to say nothing of exactly what policy he proposes in place of the comprehensive reform model pushed unsuccessfully by the establishment in both parties.

But Walker has at least gestured toward addressing the immigration-related problems that concern the kind of people who are telling pollsters they'll vote for Trump. And he has done so more responsibly, without engaging in rhetoric that is hyperbolic or disdainful.

Illegal immigrants are often said to be doing the jobs Americans won't do. While this can be overstated, Trump really is doing a job that mainstream politicians refuse to do: address public unease with uninterrupted mass immigration. He's just doing the job the way it would be done by a rabble-rousing reality TV show entertainer.

Our political debate is filled with broadly accepted terms for celebrating the undeniable benefits of immigration. What's missing is sober and careful ways of talking about immigration's costs, something illegal immigration has become a proxy for even though illegality isn't the only problem.

Consider the Pew Research Center's polling on immigration. A vast majority, 72 percent, express support for providing some way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to remain in the country, but only 24 percent want to increase immigration levels. Thirty-one percent would decrease legal immigration, and a 39 percent plurality wants to keep admissions the same.

Support for legal status for illegal immigrants, especially among Republicans, is often exaggerated by polls. The supportive answers are often predicated on conditions respondents don't necessarily trust the government to enforce in practice. When pollsters ask about the hypothetical impact on American workers, backing for legal status tends to erode.

But the virtually the whole debate over the Gang of Eight legislation, just to cite the most recent example of comprehensive immigration reform, centered on what to do with the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already here, an issue where public opinion is nuanced. There was relatively little discussion of the vast increase in legal immigration contained in the bill, something less than a quarter of the American people favor.

Moreover, this increase in immigration would occur while many Americans are still unemployed and economic opportunities for less educated workers are especially limited. In fact, low labor force participation rates are often cited as a justification for further opening the immigration spigot.

As the conservative demographics writer Jonathan Last has observed, "the simple logic of labor markets suggests that whatever we ultimately decide to do about immigration policy, the time to liberalize immigration is not when the real unemployment rate is (at the very least) north of 10 percent."

One theory for why increasing even unskilled immigration won't have the predictable supply-and-demand result for American workers is that the Americans will move away from the fields immigrants are entering, into better-paying jobs. But what if, as actual experience suggests, this movement is frequently more difficult than popular economic models conveniently assume?

A subtle discussion of the economic, cultural and public-safety dimensions of current immigration policy is more than we can expect from Donald Trump. But it appears to also be too much for candidates like Jeb Bush, who would wave away trends Americans see with their own eyes as economic illiteracy at best and racist paranoia at worst.

If the answer isn't Scott Walker, perhaps it could be another candidate. Whoever volunteers could both diminish Trump's relevance and fill an important niche in a distorted political debate.

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