Brian Mark Weber / February 10, 2017

Fixing Immigration Law One Step at a Time

A new Republican bill seeks to ease the inflow — a first step in reform.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Little did poet Emma Lazarus know that in 1883 these words would be used as a political weapon by Democrats to open up the floodgates to virtually unlimited immigration in the 20th century. Yet Republicans now have a unique opportunity to fix our immigration system while honoring the words associated with one of our most venerated symbols of freedom.

For decades, immigration was tightly controlled and limited to select European countries. This all changed when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Immigration Bill in 1965. Largely thought to be a symbolic measure at the time, the bill resulted in millions of immigrants pouring into the country and set up today’s heated battle over immigration.

Ideas for improving our immigration system are often impeded by bureaucracy, the back-and-forth power struggle between Democrats and Republicans, and a firestorm of ideological name-calling (mostly by progressives).

But perhaps the main impediment to any real progress on this issue rests with Republicans’ inability to craft a coherent, unified message that would appeal to Americans across the political spectrum while tackling the problems caused by our porous national borders.

While it’s true that Democrats ruled Congress with little opposition through 1994, Republicans since then have failed to take advantage of many opportunities to seize the issue as their own. Democrats, sensing that lack of political will, have removed all substance from the debate and have made immigration a purely emotional issue.

Essentially, anyone who opposes unlimited immigration is labeled xenophobic or racist. They are characterized as callous, unsympathetic and un-American. They are condemned for rejecting the powerful ideas of Lazarus’ words and for demeaning the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty itself. Such demonization has prevented us from securing our nation’s borders. That is, until Donald Trump became president.

Now, it’s not that President Trump alone has broken the political log-jam. In fact, the suspension of his hastily implemented executive order seems to have jolted conservatives who were poised to wrestle back the immigration issue from Democrats in one swift move. Yet there does seem to be an undercurrent in the halls of Congress, the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

Perhaps Republicans are still getting accustomed to acting like the party in power. Or maybe conservatives in the halls of Congress have learned too well that Republicans who talk tough on the campaign trail typically end up wading in the very swamp that Trump seeks to drain.

In any case, there seems to be a sense of urgency in the Republican Party today on a host of issues. The challenge is whether to tackle these problems in one fell swoop, or take a piece-by-piece approach that achieves the same long-term objectives.

The RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act, proposed by Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, takes a meaningful stance on immigration while framing the debate in sensible and acceptable terms.

Both Cotton and Perdue assert that a significant percentage of immigrants coming into our country work in low-skilled jobs that affect wages negatively across the board for blue-collar workers. The bill’s authors thus seek to cut immigration in half (from one million to 500,000 per year). Additional provisions include limiting who can be sponsored, ending the Diversity Visa Immigrant Program and reducing the number of refugees allowed into the country.

The RAISE Act seeks to strike a balance by recognizing and valuing the important role that immigrants play in our country, while also strengthening our sovereignty and restoring respect for our nation’s laws. This act addresses both our economic needs and our national security concerns while acknowledging the dignity and value of immigrants in our society.

Additionally, the act responds to the demands of impatient conservatives who want immediate solutions while appealing more broadly to millions of Americans who are still largely convinced that Republicans want to sand-blast Emma Lazarus’ words from the base of the Statue of Liberty. The balanced nature of the act also negates many of the usual criticisms of Democrats; try as they might, it will be difficult to call this measure anti-immigrant.

Certainly, the act will be met with criticism from both sides. Progressives will scowl at the idea of reducing immigration by half, and some conservatives may claim the act still allows too many immigrants into the country. Nonetheless, this is a good starting point for additional measures, such as increased border security and President Trump’s wall.

Immigration is one of the most contentious issues of our time, but it doesn’t mean that we have to resolve it overnight or with one piece of legislation. Conservatives have every right to be anxious, given the historical lack of Republican resolve. For years, we’ve been told to wait for a time when the GOP controlled both branches of Congress and the White House. Well, the time is now for Republicans to make good on their promises.

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