Republicans calling for immigration reform are reviving an old message to make their case: It’s all about the economy.
In recent years, the GOP allowed the immigration debate to be about criminality, taller border fences and “self-deportation.” And Mitt Romney lost Hispanics by 44 percentage points.
Now, key Republicans are circling back to this argument: Legalizing undocumented immigrants will make them pay more taxes, earn higher wages and bring an underground demographic of workers into the official American economy. And, Republicans hope, new voters who might sympathize with the GOP agenda on social and economic issues.
Not surprisingly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants and a possible 2016 presidential prospect, is leading his party’s effort to reframe the debate.
“Our goal is not to make rich people poorer,” Rubio said in an interview with POLITICO. “It is to make poor people richer, make all Americans more prosperous. And I think immigration is a part of that. … In order for this economy to grow dynamically, this country is going to need a 21st century legal immigration system.”
“I think Democrats realized that our economy needs immigration reform,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another key proponent of immigration reform. “You can’t get the workers you need; illegal immigration hurts us economically, politically and socially.”
In recasting the debate to be about economics, these Republicans are sending a clear signal that they’re siding with the business arm of the GOP rather than the immigration hawks who appeal more to raw emotion when it comes to undocumented immigrants. It remains to be seen if the Rubio wing of the GOP can blow past the Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wing of the party on immigration not to mention the criticism Republicans will hear from conservative talk radio.
But the new push is really just a reflection of cold demographic reality. The morning after the election, GOP leaders immediately called for their party to engage in efforts to broaden its appeal to women and minorities, and especially Latinos.
“I don’t think we’re having Republicans come to the table out of the goodness of their heart. It’s political expediency, it’s reality bites; that demographic is not going away,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who represents a district along the U.S.-Mexico border, told POLITICO.
“It’s going to increase every election cycle and they can’t afford to keep hemorrhaging.”
Serious negotiations on a comprehensive immigration bill aren’t likely to begin until after the new year.
But already, Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the Capitol have been holding behind-the-scenes talks about where the two sides can agree, lawmakers said. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has also said he wants to take up immigration reform.
What a comprehensive immigration bill will look like and how Congress plans to get there differs depending on whom you ask.
Rubio wants to approach reform with several discreet steps: First, deal with the children of undocumented immigrants, then border security, workplace enforcement and a guest worker program. Only after that would the federal government start work on legalizing the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Graham said nothing can happen until border security is strengthened. And he’s hoping to end birthright citizenship and “chain migration” in which children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants automatically become U.S. citizens and replace it with “merit-based” immigration, where workers would receive points for their green cards.
But foremost, Graham is speaking about the issue in plain, economic terms.
“In exchange for dealing with the 12 million fairly, I want a new economic-based immigration system,” Graham told reporters. “That’s my goal: to create a new immigration system based on the economic needs of the country.”
There are disagreements among Democrats as well. A complete overhaul of the immigration system is preferable, Grijalva said, but enacting the DREAM Act a bill to legalize young illegal immigrants that failed to clear Congress in the 2010 lame-duck session could be a starting point in negotiations.
But New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who heads policy and messaging for Senate Democrats, is insisting on a comprehensive not a piecemeal approach.
“Everything is broken,” Schumer said. “The border is broken, the number of illegal immigrants who come into the country is broken, legal immigration is broken and all the people who are here in a land of limbo ’cause they can’t work is broken. We need to fix it all.”
Schumer and Graham have revived a comprehensive immigration reform framework they introduced two years ago in a Washington Post op-ed. A key component in the pair’s four-prong proposal is awarding green cards to immigrants who earned a doctorate or a master’s degree in the United States in the so-called STEM fields science, technology, engineering or math. That plan would be another boost to the economy, the senators argued.
And Schumer singled out Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – once an outspoken fan of comprehensive reform before his 2008 presidential primary and 2010 Senate campaign as someone who could once again “play a very constructive role.”
Others expected to take part in discussions include Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen.-elect Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose sweeping bipartisan immigration package with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) ran into opposition near the end of the George W. Bush administration.
In 2007, Flake and Gutierrez also sold their efforts as an economic issue.
“The economic framing of the immigration issue is not new,” Gutierrez told POLITICO on Monday. “Making it a priority in your arguing for a comprehensive approach might be new, but the economic argument has always been there. It was an effective message 15 years ago and it’s still effective today because you increase tax dollars to the federal registry and you put people to work.”
That could be a compelling message for the Grand Old Party today.
“It’s a way to sell immigration that makes it in the self-interest in the United States instead of an act of altruism,” said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at The Brookings Institution, who has studied immigration. “It should be more appealing to Republicans because it’s a way to make the argument that immigration helps the economy without taking the jobs of Americans.”
Of course, none of this takes into account the blowback that could come from conservative skeptics who primarily blame Obama for inaction on immigration.
“You can’t trust the president to enforce the law or to respect the Constitution,” King said. “I think in the end, you’re going to come up to that and then members are not going to want to adopt a proposal because they’ve seen this movie before, and we know the ending. And that’s here’s the amnesty, but the promise of enforcement doesn’t come through.”
Added Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), who heads the House subcommittee on immigration: Obama “certainly hasn’t done anything to give any indication to anyone that he has any desire to solve the problem, and I can say that with [a] high level of experience as chairman of the committee.”