The debate over immigration has become a huge problem for the GOP.
Donald Trump started things off earlier this year when he promised mass deportations for those who had entered the country illegally, after building a wall on the southern border and "making Mexico pay for it." Trump later softened his position, promising to allow "the good ones" to re-enter the U.S. immediately, presumably ahead of those already waiting in line for legal entry. His actual policy proposal makes no mention of mass deportation at all; the only reference to deportation in Trump's position paper is to "illegal aliens in gangs" such as MS-13. But like many of Trump's statements, the policy matters much less than venting the frustration felt by voters.
Long ago, the 9/11 Commission declared the southern border (and the northern border as well) a national security risk in our new age of radical Islamist terrorism. The report also warned about serious flaws in the management of visas, an issue raised once again by the failure to vet one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, who entered the U.S. on a K-1 "fiancé" visa in July 2014. That track record of failure has Americans understandably angry about our impasse on immigration policy, and Trump's simplistic and broad pronouncements both reflect and empower those voters.
But if Trump offers simplistic slogans, then the rest of the Republican presidential field gets too cute by half on immigration policy. For the last couple of weeks, the debate apart from Trump has focused on the semantics of "legalization" and whether it amounts to amnesty.
All Republican candidates in this cycle agree that the first steps on immigration policy are to build a wall and overhaul the visa program, both long overdue after the 9/11 Commission warnings in 2005. Without that sequencing, the U.S. risks exacerbating its illegal immigration problem in the short and long term, as we saw after the 1986 compromise that left border and visa security practically unchanged. When those first goals are accomplished, the question of how to deal with the undocumented immigrants remaining in the U.S. — perhaps 11 million or more — becomes acute. This debate over their final status erupted in a clash of claims between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio at last week's debate.
Cruz and Rubio have emerged from the pack to become serious challengers to Trump, and both are jockeying to be his prime alternative. In many ways, the two senators are similar in policy, but Cruz opposed Rubio's "Gang of Eight" effort in 2013 to create a bipartisan solution to immigration reform. Cruz latched onto the process by which longstanding immigrants here illegally would gain legal status in the U.S., and declared that he "did not intend" to allow legalization. Rubio then accused Cruz of changing his position, highlighting an amendment Cruz had offered to the Gang of Eight bill that would have blocked citizenship but not legal-resident status. Ever since, the two have jousted over the parsing of the language in the bill and public statements each has made.
This spat, like Trump's statements, acts more as a signal of muscularity on immigration than a serious policy debate. Cruz wants to gain credit for being more serious than Trump but more assertive and trustworthy than Rubio, while Rubio wants to undermine trust in Cruz to jump over him to challenge Trump. A serious policy debate, though, would ask whether legalization alone would work, let alone refusing it.
Let's start with Cruz's position. Denying a path to legal status would eliminate the incentives that would drive illegal immigrants to self-identify, which would allow the U.S. to run background checks and reduce the scope of national-security efforts to find potential troublemakers. In fact, that position gains nothing, and looks more like Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" position that got roundly rejected in 2012. It would leave millions in a black-market status, perpetuating an underclass that would increase the issues immigration reform would seek to reduce, especially crime and security. In that sense, Trump's statements are more internally coherent than Cruz's — and perhaps as pragmatic.
What about legalization without naturalization? That does create incentives to come out of the shadows, and proposals to deny broad classes of the population an option for naturalization do have some precedent. However, this also cuts across conservative demands for assimilation over obsessive multiculturalism, which is important both culturally and politically. Legalization without an eventual path to citizenship would provide a powerful disincentive to assimilation. In the long run, it would also be almost impossible to sustain politically, especially as that population becomes much more mainstream.
Also missing from this discussion is the foreign-policy aspects for immigration, especially over the long term. Thanks to the sharp increase in focus on ISIS in the GOP primaries, we have had some debate on how best to incentivize Middle East regimes to deal with the problem. However, we have had no discussion at all on how prospective presidents would do the same with Mexico and Central American nations to reduce the flow of economic refugees into the U.S. How do we put pressure on these nations to reform their economies, their governments, and their use of capital to create environments where their people have reasons to stay put? The only mention at all in this direction has come from Trump and his insistence that he'll get Mexico to pay for our border wall.
The lack of substantive discussion on immigration highlights the fact that there are no easy answers, no simplistic solutions. People of integrity and principle on all sides have legitimate reasons for their positions, be it an adherence to the rule of law or the need to welcome the poor and downtrodden. Voters are not angry because those positions have not been amply represented; they're angry because few are looking for pragmatic and systemic solutions rather than talking points and slogans, and that Washington has had more than a decade and is still no closer to a solution.
The next Republican nominee had better start working on the former and dispensing with the latter. Signaling might make sense in a primary where little real difference exists between the candidates. In a general election, voters will want solutions and a sense that a candidate knows the issues rather than relies on high-altitude slogans. And that applies to more issues than just immigration.