In the wake of the November elections, Democrats and Republicans around the country are taking a renewed interest in comprehensive immigration reform. Polling shows that a majority of Americans want reform, and are amenable to the specific proposals in question, but that Republicans are more skeptical. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, is taking up the issue, on the premise that Texans, particularly conservative Texans, have the knowledge and experience to craft an approach that other states might find credible. Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of the foundation, talked to Texas Monthly last week. (For more background on Texas’s approach to the issue, see here.)

So the TPPF is gearing up on immigration. Is this in response to the last election?

It was always very clear that the issue would blow up. It wasn’t a matter of “if”; it was “when.” And, sure enough, I think this election pushed it to the forefront.

Do you mean that you thought the issue was going to blow up nationally, or in Texas?

Oh, nationally. It’s a federal issue. There’s no question. But Washington, D.C. can’t fix itself. I hope I’m wrong on that count, because I would love for Washington to come forward with a viable solution that works. But their discussion is all about what to do with the undocumented population that’s here currently. There isn’t even discussion, really, about how to fix the problem long-term.

We do need to discuss what to do with the people that are here. They are not going back to Mexico. They have families here. They have children. They have grandchildren. They’re not leaving, so we do need to have a very serious discussion on a normalization process. But, more importantly, we have to figure out how to fix the underlying problem, which is the illegal movement of labor across our border.

So what are you thinking at this point?

From the forties through the sixties, we had the bracero program, which was a United States-Mexico collaboration that fulfilled the demand for the unskilled laborers. You had a way for unskilled labor to cross the border, work, and go home. You didn’t have this situation that we’re in today. The system today, from my perspective, was created by the left and by the unions [in a political alliance primarily between Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and national Democrats]. It still continues to benefit the unions and the American left. Those of us who believe in markets and freedom and entrepreneurship are sort of standing there saying, “Wait, what’s happening?”

That’s what we really need to focus on. We have to look back at the program we had that was very successful until the sixties, when it was shut down. How do we emulate that for today? No one has really put their arms around this yet and come forward with a very specific policy solution. And we will get there, we being the Texas Public Policy Foundation. We have a couple of more months of significant research that we need to do to make sure that we fully understand what the current situation is, how the situation in the forties, fifties, and sixties actually worked, and then how we apply that to the current context.

Texas is an interesting state in this context, because we have perhaps as many as two million unauthorized immigrants living here, but the issue has never been as inflammatory as we’ve seen in other states, even border states like Arizona. If anything, the state’s been moderate. What’s your interpretation of that?

I think that’s correct. I think that Texans, or most Texans, inherently understand that this is a crisis, the status quo is broken, and that something needs to be fixed. And at the end of the day, we’re a state that shares roots with Mexico that go back hundreds of years and that has a very collaborative and open approach to jobs and the economy and market-based policy. So it’s not surprising that Texas is more receptive to this idea than some of the other border states like Arizona may be, or that Texas is going to lead the way back to a sane, sensible, workable immigration policy.

Well, ‘sane’ and ‘sensible’ are two words I always associate with Texas. I’m sure our friends around the country do too.

People in Texas need to understand that the guys in Washington that are working on this—including Marco Rubio and others who are great conservatives—are working within the current debate, which is what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants that are here. I think they’re very sincerely and thoughtfully trying to work towards a solution, whether or not you agree or disagree with what they’ve come up with. I also believe that the White House doesn’t necessarily want a solution. You know, when President Obama said a week or two ago that he wanted to include a gay marriage or same-sex couples policy within the same exact debate—the fact that he would even try to inject that issue into the immigration debate is, I think, a pretty telling sign about how serious he is about achieving significant bipartisan reform.

People bundle a lot into these proposals. We’ve touched on the idea of a guest worker program for unskilled labor, but on the other side of the skills spectrum, do you see us expanding the number of visas for highly skilled workers?

Yes. That, I think, is the easy solution. I don’t know of anyone who is against that—Republicans, Democrats, educated, not-educated, blue collar, white collar.

And how about the border security part? Do you think border security and immigration reform should be pursued simultaneously?

I do. Border security has to be at the very top of the list, there’s no question. However, 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. Once we fix the guest worker part of this, once we figure out how to move unskilled labor back and forth across the border, I believe that securing the borders begins to solve itself. Then, you’ll be able to focus a great amount of resources on the bad guys versus on everybody.

And as far as people who are here, you mentioned ‘normalization’. What would that look like? 

Well, I think there has to be some sort of ‘normalization’ process. I believe that recognizing the people that are here, and putting them into a system in which they are paying taxes and learning English will ultimately be a benefit for our society as a whole. Recognizing their contribution is important. Now, the specifics of what that looks like—does that mean a path to citizenship? Does that mean birthright citizenship? Does that mean just getting a card noting that you are here as a worker? That all needs to be worked out. But, again, I believe that our side, 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?

Polling finds a lot of opposition to immigration reform, certainly around the country, and even in Texas. You’re a leader in Texas conservative circles; how are you going to make the case to conservatives?

I think one of the most important things that people have to realize, and conservatives have to realize, is that the current system was a child of the left. The unions set the current system up, and it is the left that continues to benefit from it, from a political perspective. Conservatives have to realize is we have to step forward. We have to be positive and proactive in this debate and provide solutions. We also have to be realistic. It’s time conservatives recognize what the right thing to do is for the country. Rhetoric is not going to get us there, and guess what? Building a wall over twelve hundred miles of the border of Texas is not going to solve the problem.

That reminds me of Todd Staple’s comment at the policy orientation: “Do you really want to have a government that’s big enough to deport 11 million people?”

Exactly! And no, you don’t. 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, and that it is our responsibility, as conservatives and the defenders of the great American dream, to fix this problem. 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.

And as far as the foundation’s work, how do you think Texas can lead on this issue? I was thinking about the Right on Crime initiative, which has been influential, but that’s a case where the state implemented some reforms, and then other states saw the results and did the same thing. But immigration is, as you said, a federal issue. Do you see TPPF’s role as a kind of thought or advocacy leadership? Or are you looking at state-level reforms that might be picked up elsewhere?

The role that Texas can play is instrumental in solving the problem. The idea that conservatives can step forward with conservative values and positive solutions is, in my opinion, going to be paramount to us solving the problem. And that’s through thought leadership: the Texas step forward is to say, “Here’s the problem. Here’s how we got to the problem. Here’s the solution.”

But I do think that there are specific things that Texas can do. Immigration is a federal question. Can Texas pass its own guest worker program? Utah did it, and now they’re at crosshairs with the feds on how to run it and what to do. But just think about the possibility that Utah and Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana and a lot of states in the country decide to pass their own guest worker program and then work with Washington on how to implement it. I think there’s a very constructive conversation.

Texas leaders have actually been a little subdued in this year’s discussions, perhaps because of things like the controversy over the Texas “Dream Act” in the 2011 primary. Ted Cruz, in fact, seems like a voice of opposition in the Senate against the Rubio plan. What would you expect to see from the state leadership?

My hope is that we are able to change the conversation on this entire issue, so everyone will realize that there is a viable solution. The more we spend debating and arguing over this issue, the more harm we do not only to the conservative movement but to the whole country.