Rich Lowry / Apr. 20, 2021

The Republican Establishment Still Doesn’t Get It on Immigration

Supporters of the old consensus aren’t especially keen on understanding the arguments of opponents.

It’s not 2007 again. But apparently no one has told George W. Bush.

To coincide with the release of a book of his paintings of immigrants, “Out of Many, One,” the former Republican president wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post plugging the sort of immigration package that went down to defeat in both his administration and in the administration of his successor, Barack Obama.

Bush is an unusually sincere, earnest politician whose views on immigration are deeply felt and honestly come by — they are just anachronistic, or should be.

If there’s any lesson that everyone should have learned from Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, it’s that the party’s old consensus on immigration is no longer sustainable.

Yet there’s still a reflex toward the lazy conventional wisdom that all that ails the country on immigration is lack of an agreement to give an amnesty to illegal immigrants already here and increase numbers of legal immigrants, in exchange for more bells and whistles at the border — what is commonly known as “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Bush says not passing immigration reform is his biggest regret, and John Boehner, out with a score-settling memoir of his time as speaker of the house, says it is his second biggest regret (after not forging a big fiscal deal with President Obama).

Boehner spends a lot of time meditating on how the GOP became, in his telling, “Crazytown,” a party of extremists and paranoiacs that eventually threw itself into the arms of Donald Trump.

The former speaker spreads the blame widely, but it evidently doesn’t occur to him that one major factor driving a wedge between the party’s establishment and its grassroots was the elected leadership’s insistence on repeatedly trying to pass immigration bills that Republican voters rejected.

For his part, Bush sounds as if he’s learned nothing. In his Post piece, he cites all the usual measures at the border included in these sort of bills — “manpower, physical barriers, advanced technology, streamlined and efficient ports of entry.”

That’s all fine, but it is no substitute for rigorous enforcement in the interior of the country and can’t counteract the open-borders message sent by welcoming illegal immigrants into the country.

In that regard, Bush professes, as all supporters of comprehensive immigration reform always do, to oppose amnesty as “fundamentally unfair to those who came legally or are still waiting their turn to become citizens.”

He then calls for an amnesty couched as, in one of the laziest cliches in the immigration debate, bringing illegal immigrants “out of the shadows.”

This will be achieved “through a gradual process in which legal residency and citizenship must be earned,” by requiring “proof of work history, payment of a fine and back taxes, English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and a clean background check.”

Such requirements are always promised in comprehensive immigration bills and are always toothless, serving only as a way to deny that the amnesty for illegal immigrants is indeed an amnesty.

Bush says, as well, that both parties should be willing to get behind “increased legal immigration,” a characteristic feature of these bills. In another tired talking point, Bush insists that a higher level of immigration is necessary to bringing more skilled immigrants — never considering that we could also reduce the number of low-skilled immigrants.

But supporters of the old consensus aren’t especially keen on understanding the arguments of opponents. Boehner refers to the “far-right crazies” who never forgave John McCain for pushing immigration reform, and blames “demagogues” and sheer “stubbornness” for blocking a comprehensive bill in 2014.

So far this year, Republican senators have only talked of a narrower immigration bill focused on an amnesty for so-called Dreamers. Surely, though, the instinct toward comprehensive immigration hasn’t gone away. It’s up to Republican voters to constantly remind the party’s officeholders that 2007 is, indeed, a very long time ago.

© 2021 by King Features Syndicate

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