Right on Immigration

Democrats and Republicans seem ready to make a push for comprehensive immigration reform, after years of stalemate on the issue. But Brooke Rollins, head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, thinks their approach may have the wrong focus.

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AP Photo | Guillermo Arias

After years of stalemate, it looks as if both Democrats and Republicans are ready to make a new push for comprehensive immigration reform. Barack Obama called for it in his State of the Union address last night. So did Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, who had been tasked with giving the GOP’s response. The president and Rubio, who is working with a bipartisan group of senators to craft a bill on the subject, agree on a number of things: the reform effort should allow for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already here, for example, and should authorize additional resources for border security.

That sudden interest in cooperation, on both sides of the aisle, seems like a positive development, but according to Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), everyone in Washington is going about this all wrong. She’s not among the Republicans who are skeptical of immigration reform, or wary of the moral hazard that “amnesty” would create. Rather, her objection is that the current effort is overly focused on the challenge at hand—the unauthorized immigrants who are already here—rather than the conditions that gave rise to the challenge in the first place.

“There has to be some sort of ‘normalization’ process,” she said. “I believe that recognizing the people that are here, and putting them into a system where they are paying taxes and learning English will ultimately be a benefit for our society as a whole. But the conservative side is spending too much time, too much energy, and too much focus on that question. The bigger question has to be, how do we fix the system going forward?”

That’s what the TPPF, a conservative think tank based in Austin, is trying to figure out—and when they release their findings, which Rollins expects in the next few months, they could prove to be an influential voice on the subject. The fact that a think tank is thinking is not, in itself, news, but Texas conservatives are influential with their national counterparts, and at times the TPPF is less of a think tank than a battle tank.

In 2005, for example, the foundation announced that it would start looking at criminal justice issues. That led to the launch, in 2010, of the nationwide Right on Crime campaign, a suite of initiatives designed to improve public safety while reducing the costs, economic and otherwise, of the extant system. Significantly, many of the reforms recommended by Right on Crime are ideas that had been associated with progressives. What Right on Crime does, in a sense, is highlight the cases where social welfare and fiscal discipline overlap: if a person has a problem with substance abuse, for example, it’s better for him to receive treatment than to be put in jail, and ultimately it costs the state less, because incarceration is expensive. At last count, about two dozen states had taken a few pages from the Texas playbook.

An outsider might be surprised to hear moderate rhetoric on immigration from a Texas conservative, particularly right now. Texas’s Republican leadership has been largely silent on the immigration issue for the past few months—no big speeches, no emergency bills in the Legislature. The only exception has been Ted Cruz, the state’s new United States senator, who issued a statement opposing the idea of a path to citizenship.

Texas Republicans have, however, been more moderate on this issue than most of their peers. In 2010, after Arizona passed a notoriously strict immigration law, Governor Rick Perry told reporters that he had “concerns” about it, and that it “would not be the right direction for Texas.” The next year, during his ill-fated presidential campaign, he was apparently taken aback when his rivals for the Republican primary nomination walloped him for the 2001 “Texas Dream Act,” which allowed certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at Texas’s public colleges and universities. In 2011, the Legislature had a heated debate over “sanctuary cities,” but the bill fizzled. The next year, at its annual convention, the Republican Party of Texas included a call for a guest worker program as part of its platform. If Texas Republicans have been keeping quiet on the issue, in fact, it might be in part because they don’t want their primary voters to catch them in a moderate moment. Jim Henson and Joshua Blank, who work on the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, recently offered an analysis along these lines: even if Cruz appears to be “out of step” with national and state party leaders on this, polls show that Republican voters may appreciate his stricter stance.

There are a number of reasons Texas conservatives have taken a temperate approach to the issue. Economically, for example, it’s clear that unauthorized immigrants make up a measurable number of workers in the state; significantly, Texas does not mandate the use of E-Verify. Politically, state leaders realized a long time ago that there’s a fine line between vilifying unauthorized immigrants (most of whom are Hispanic) and offending Hispanics in general. And for some Republicans, at least, there are bigger concerns. “Do we really want to grow a government big enough to round up 11 million people?” asked Todd Staples, the agriculture commissioner, at a roundtable discussion—hosted by the TPPF—last month.

Underlying all of this is that Texas has a good reason to be pragmatic about the situation. There are about 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of 2013, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and as many as two million live in Texas. That’s why a conservative like Rollins would say that focusing on the current undocumented population is just kicking the can, and that the bigger issue is systemic: how to manage the flow of labor, particularly unskilled labor, across borders. And conversely, she argued, when that issue is effectively tackled, other parts of the puzzle will seem more manageable. Securing the border, for example, will be easier: “What’s happening now is that we are using so many resources on so many people that just want a job, that are not a threat to security, that are not bad guys, because we’re spread so thin.”

The focal point of the TPPF effort, then, is likely to be a call for an expanded guest-worker program. (The United States does, as it stands, issue temporary visas for agricultural workers, although only enough to cover a small fraction of the people who work in that sector.)

The idea of a larger guest-worker program is not outlandish. Both Obama and Rubio have toyed with it. It will, however, be a tough sell. America’s largest experiment with guest workers began in 1942, when the Roosevelt administration, as a response to labor shortages during World War II, negotiated an agreement with Mexico that arranged temporary visas for farm workers known as braceros. Business groups generally welcomed the arrangement, and the program was extended after the war ended. The bracero program was, however, controversial on the left. Civil rights advocates worried that the braceros faced low wages and grim working conditions. In a 1964 television address, for example, Henry B. Gonzalez, the longtime US Representative from San Antonio (and the first Mexican-American to serve in Congress) explained that it was a “bad program”, pursued at the behest of “powerful, vested monied interests”:  “those who profit by cheap labor, those who profit by the displacing of American labor, those who profit by trading the misery of one nation on the misery  of another nation.”* Labor groups also, less high-mindedly, argued that braceros were taking jobs Americans would have taken, and depressing wages for everyone.

The bracero program ended in 1964, after Congress declined to reauthorize it. Two years later, Congress passed, and Lyndon Johnson signed, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which retooled American immigration policy to emphasize family reunification and skills rather than country of origin. In 2005 and 2006, when George W. Bush included a guest-worker program as part of his framework for comprehensive immigration reform, the old arguments resurfaced. The New Republic, for example, argued that a large-scale guest worker program that didn’t include a provision for a path to citizenship or residency was “un-American”. Future discussions about guest worker programs will, presumably, be met with similar objections on the left.

Those are serious objections, but they may not be insuperable. Democrats should keep that in mind. Polling suggests that a majority of Americans want immigration reform, and would like to see a provision for a path to citizenship. Republicans, however, are more skeptical than Democrats. Rollins thinks that some of that resistance might soften if immigration reform is framed as a conservative issue. “When I have the opportunity to talk to the people you’ve mentioned, the ones who are seemingly very anti-immigrant, I explain how we got to the current situation, and that the current situation continues to inure to the benefit of the left and those who believe in big government and those who believe in higher taxes,” she said. “And again, we can’t fix this problem with heated rhetoric and ugly words and the idea that we are going to move 11 million people across the border. It just isn’t realistic. There is a positive solution. We just all have to work toward it.”

For the full Q&A with Brooke Rollins, click here.

*For more context on the bracero program, see Gregory Rodriguez’s 2007 book about Mexican immigration to the United States, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds. For a sense of what working conditions for farm laborers were like in the postwar United States, it’s worth watching Edward Murrow’s 1960 documentary for CBS, Harvest of Shame.

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