How Republicans Should Rethink Immigration Reform

The right kind of immigration policy can actually promote job growth--and help the GOP.

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Five words you will never hear again from a conservative: I agree with Markos Moulitsas. Markos, founder and publisher of liberal blog the Daily Kos, wrote recently that, “[a]lienating Latinos may offer short-term electoral gain [for Republicans], but it’s a long-term recipe for disaster.” He’s exactly right.

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.]

History is on Markos’ side. The California Proposition 187 is the closet analogue. In 1994 California had around 1.3 million illegal immigrants and spent about $3 billion per year on services for their benefit. Prop 187 was designed as a solution to the problem by barring illegal immigrants from receiving state services. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson made the bill one of his primary campaign issues and ultimately used its popularity to overcome a 20 percent deficit at the polls. But it was a success only in the short term. As NBC’s First Read explains:

Democrats won California just ONCE in presidential contests from 1952 to 1988. But after Wilson’s Prop. 187, Republicans haven’t come CLOSE to winning the nation’s biggest state. It's not even remotely close to being a swing state.

California, a state with 21 more electoral votes than the second most populous state, is now largely lost to Republicans. With Sen. Harry Reid hoping to take up a national immigration reform bill prior to the August recess, Republicans must not make the same shortsighted mistake again. I can almost hear my conservative readers yelling at me through the computer screen: “This is about principle, not votes!” I understand. I’m not saying we line up behind whatever bill the Democrats put forward. I’m arguing that we need to outflank them. Minority voters, led by Hispanics, will represent the majority of voters by 2050. There is simply no way a political party will remain viable without tapping into the Hispanic vote.

[See who supports Reid.]

Alienating them is not the answer. Developing a forward thinking approach that espouses conservative principles is. The first step is changing the tone of the debate. Currently immigrants are framed as uneducated leeches, coming to this country to take work rather than create it. People only see the negatives because it is the only argument they have been presented with. When we hear “immigrant” we envision either illegal immigrants or unskilled, uneducated legal immigrants. Unfortunately, our nation’s broken and outdated immigration policy only contributes to the problem by admitting large numbers of these types. It needn’t be this way.

To remedy the problem we must promote the benefits of an “Einstein Immigration Policy.” The plan, as detailed by Darrel West in the Wall Street Journal, explains the benefits of increasing the number of immigration visas based on employment. Consider:

A Duke University study by Vivek Wadhwa found that 25 percent of all the technology and engineering businesses launched in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 had a foreign-born founder. In Silicon Valley, that number was 52.4 percent. Much of the high-tech boom of recent years has rested on immigrant entrepreneurship.

We’re keeping these innovators out. Currently we set a quota of 65,000 H-1B visas for “specialty occupations” such as scientists and engineers. In 2007 and 2008 we met that quota less than a week after opening registration. As part of any immigration strategy, Republicans must eliminate the cap on H-1B visas to allow these entrepreneurs, scientific innovators, and most importantly, job creators into the United States.

Of course expanding the visa program is only a small part of a larger immigration picture that must include securing the borders and streamlining the citizenship process. Nevertheless, it is crucial to changing the lens through which we view immigration. We as a party can begin to shift from the South Park “dey tirk err jobs” caricature and begin to show that the right kind of immigration policy can actually promote job growth.

Advancing a plan on immigration is tricky for Republicans. It requires looking beyond immediate gains, toward a long-term vision of the ideological landscape. After all, a May Rasmussen poll finds that 55 percent favor passage of an immigration law similar to Arizona for their own state. Even more telling, 78 percent of voters who say immigration is an important issue in terms of how they will vote say they support an Arizona-like law. But short-term gain will lead to long term losses. But if we frame the debate correctly, by promoting an immigration policy that aids our global competitiveness and aids job creation, we can win now and later.