America as a Beacon: The Bush Immigration Plan is Reaganesque in its Optimism
January 12, 2004
By Tamar Jacoby
The rap on the immigration initiative launched last week by President Bush is that it's mere political pandering, a sop to special interests, in this case business and Hispanic voters. This is an old stereotype: Republicans as the tool of employers. Democratic hopeful Howard Dean trotted it out predictably: "The President's proposal will help big corporations."
What Mr. Dean and other simplistic critics don't see is the larger conservative case for immigration reform -- a case that goes well beyond business interests. Yes, Republicans and conservatives are divided on immigration, a split that coincides with the Wall Street-Main Street cleavage long a hallmark of the party. And yes -- shameful as it may seem to some -- Mr. Bush wants to be re-elected, including if possible with help from Hispanics. But since when is it pandering for a president to take on one of our thorniest problems: a critical federal policy that isn't working and hasn't worked for decades, despite repeated efforts to fix it by both parties?
President Bush's announcement is a historic beginning, truly not unlike Richard Nixon's trip to China. The White House initiative doesn't get everything right, and there is much work still to be done by both the administration and Congress. But the president has taken a critical first step and he deserves credit -- both for taking on the broken status quo and for articulating a conservative case for change. What, after all, could be more conservative than encouraging the American Dream, rewarding work, restoring the rule of law and enhancing our security?
Easing immigration restriction is not, to put it mildly, a traditional Republican or conservative cause. Though early Americans made little effort to count or control who entered the country, anti-immigrant sentiment often ran strong, and it generally coincided with other orientations perceived to be conservative: anti-radicalism, anti-Catholicism, protectionism and out-and-out bigotry. The Know Nothing Party of the 1840s begat the Anglo-Saxonist movement of the 1890s begat the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and on into our era. Pete Wilson, Pat Buchanan, Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado . . . today's restrictionist pantheon, too, is made up almost entirely of Republicans or conservatives. Of course, American business has almost always been on the other side: Employers understood that economic growth required a robust supply of labor. But no American political thinker who called himself a conservative made a principled case for immigration in the first 200 years of the nation's history.
What has changed first and foremost is the reality of the world we live in. The burgeoning of international trade that we call globalization has transformed the nation's problems and possibilities and, with that, our politics. This, more than any other reason, is why traditional right-wing thinking has given way to conservatism as we know it: An approach, rooted in classical liberalism, that exalts change rather than the status quo, and champions not just business interests but capitalism, seen as an engine of growth and prosperity for all social classes. It is an outlook that knows that civilizations thrive on exchange, cultural as well as commercial -- and just as it inevitably favors free trade, so it welcomes immigration.
Ronald Reagan was of course the first president to carry this new conservative banner, extolling free markets both at home and abroad. True, he signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, not generally considered a pro-immigration measure. Still, today, even among many left-leaning advocates, he is widely seen as a friend of immigration. His trademark bywords say it all: individual initiative, self-reliance, opportunity, entrepreneurship. Others, including this newspaper, made the same case. But it was President Reagan who articulated it best: not only the supply-siders' arguments that "immigrants mean job growth mean prosperity" for everyone, but also the power of optimism and of America as a beacon.
So just what is the conservative case for immigration? President Bush made it well last week. He spoke of the American Dream and of the entrepreneurial spirit immigrants bring. He described the reality of global labor markets and asserted the need for policy that makes the most of them. He threw in a pinch of the liberal case for immigration, compassion for the least among us. But he also sounded some hard-headed practical strains -- the homely conservatism of the stand-up leader determined to confront what isn't working.
The fact is that the broken status quo is bad for all Americans, immigrant and native-born. Business suffers when it cannot find enough workers or must make do with an unreliable illegal flow. Immigrants suffer when they are penalized merely for showing up to work, forced to live underground and unable to assert even their most basic rights. American laborers suffer when immigrant employees who can't bargain for better undercut prevailing wages and work conditions. Our democratic values suffer when we tolerate an all but permanent underclass without rights. And security suffers when we as a nation cannot control our borders or even know who lives among us.
Pro-immigration conservatism recognizes this and sees that the all-important first step toward fixing it is accepting reality -- the reality of the market-driven migrant flow. The Bush package does just that and endeavors to bring the entire influx above ground, acknowledging both those arriving now and those who came illicitly in the past by granting them legal status as temporary workers. Not only does this promise to put critical sectors of the economy back on a legal footing; it will also restore the rule of law in immigrant communities and enhance national security, freeing up border agents and other resources that can be devoted to fighting terrorism.
The Bush plan is marred by one critical flaw, one provision that does not live up to conservative values. As the president calculated, any plan that looks like an amnesty will never win the support of a majority of Republicans. But in bowing to those politics, he sacrificed two far more important imperatives: immigrant assimilation and the American ideal of a caste-free society. Temporary workers who cannot become citizens are by definition a caste apart, people whose very legal status means they can never be fully integrated into American life. The president's plan doesn't bar temporary workers from getting on the normal path toward citizenship -- in fact, it removes legal barriers that would prevent them from doing so. But his package does not create enough of a bridge from one class to the other -- from disposable hired help to full-fledged member of the American body politic.
Conservatives like to mock the phrase, popularized during Jimmy Carter's years in the White House, that a president or a party can be on "the right side of history." But the truth is, flawed as it is, that's exactly where the Bush plan puts Republicans. The proposal will have to be tempered in Congress. The president may not win this struggle for the soul of his party, and even if he does, may not succeed in appealing to Hispanic voters. Still, he has set a conservative course for navigating one of the most pressing realities of our era: our increasingly integrated global labor markets. Not only that, but he understands that the GOP, long the party of business, should also be the party of opportunity and inclusion. Indeed, it can be argued, conservative values demand nothing less.
Ms. Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the editor of "Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means To Be American," just out from Basic Books.
©2004 Wall Street Journal
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