State of the Union

Donald Trump Has a Point on Immigration

Donald Trump may be nearly the last person at CPAC from whom I would expect a sound idea. His recent contributions to public debate have in the main been noisy dog whistle appeals to racialism and xenophobia, couched in concerns about President Obama’s birth certificate. The impact of these has been nil, apart from making the country more partisan and any sort of governing “vital center” harder to reach. But I couldn’t resist clicking when confronted with Josh Marshall’s snarky headline on TPM: “Trump: Send us your white people.” 

While it was a important concern of mine during the 1990s, the immigration issue has largely ceased to interest me. Recently I’ve written about it mostly to suggest that multiculturalism may well play into paleoconservative foreign policy preferences–and that the neoconservatives may have shot themselves in the foot in their efforts to purge immigrations restrictionists (reformers, they used to be called) in the 1990s.

But if one watches the news, it’s difficult to ignore the GOP’s fumbling on the issue, the  seemingly complete inability of its leaders and spokesmen to find anything positive, forceful or compelling to say. One immigration restrictionist who plays a prominent role in the Washington debate told me recently that GOP congressmen and senators are like deer in the headlights, casting around blindly for the position that will do them the least political harm. And despite the apparent importance of the issue to their party, virtually none of them have done any homework to understand it.

Enter, in his characteristic way, Donald Trump. Anyone in the restaurant and hotel business, which Trump very much is, employs a lot immigrants. My surmise is his attention to immigration law is average for the sector: that is, he will do what he can get away with to hire the best people he can at the lowest wages. In his talk to CPAC he was blunt: the 11 million illegal immigrants who everyone talks about giving a path to legalization are mostly going to become Democrats. That didn’t stop him from saying–almost in a whisper, that of course “we’ve got to do the right thing”–which meant providing the illegals a path to a green card.

But then he said something else. He began talking about the difficulty of immigrating to the U.S. from Europe by the highly educated. Of course he used over the top examples–the brilliant student at Harvard, Wharton, etc, who wasn’t going to work as an illegal alien and couldn’t find a way to work here legally. Such people exist, but are a small relative number. But there’s an important point here, one that that Republicans should jump on. The immigration issue isn’t entirely what to do about the estimated 10-12 million illegal aliens living here “in the shadows.” That’s part of it. But the more important part–entirely ignored by the current GOP (and by Democrats as well, but since immigration is a GOP problem, their ignorance is more critical) is legal immigration.

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The Minimum Wage, Immigration, and Affirmative Action

Earlier this week Washington Post Columnist Matt Miller published an excellent piece making the case for a large increase in the federal minimum wage, including arguments drawn from a wide range of prominent business and political figures, as well as mention of  my own recent New America article on that issue.

Given the importance of the topic, it is hardly unexpected that the column attracted some 600 comments.  But far more surprising was the overwhelmingly negative response of those readers.  Given that the Post is a centrist-liberal newspaper and Miller a centrist-liberal columnist, one suspects that the vast majority of the commenters were similarly of the centrist-liberal orientation.  But I suspect that most of their hostile remarks would have been indistinguishable from what would have greeted a similar suggestion posted on National Review or FoxNews or the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity; and therein lies a tale. Read More…

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The Flaw in Marco Rubio’s Immigration Jujitsu

Here’s a potential stumbling block for Sen. Marco Rubio’s strategy of whispering to the talk-radio right: If current immigration law, or what passes for it, is “de facto amnesty,” then the 11 or 12 million undocumented workers residing here illegally would have no incentive to “come out of the shadows” and take advantage of Rubio’s path to legal status.

Step back and recall the reason why many Republicans urgently want to tackle the immigration issue (other than to establish Rubio’s credentials as a reformer and policy wonk as preparation for a 2016 presidential run). Obviously, they want to improve the party’s image among Hispanics. Pace Mitt Romney, they would like to deliver a gift to a growing demographic.

To sell the plan to immigration restrictionists, however, Rubio must emphasize its punitive measures—its law-and-order litany of, as Romney-turned-Rubio booster Jennifer Rubin explains, monetary fines, back taxes, community service, and adverse treatment in the application for legal residence or citizenship.

At a certain level, this is how all large-scale legislative reforms work; you assemble a coalition by discretely highlighting the most appealing aspects of your proposal—access to medical care for the working poor, more customers for hospitals and insurers, lower costs (in theory!) for everyone, to use the Obamacare sales pitch as an example. If enough people think they’ll gain more than they lose, your reform stands a chance of becoming law. But Rubio appears to be playing this game to the point of internal contradiction. If he tells the likes of Mark Levin and Sean Hannity that current law is a better deal for undocumented workers, then what’s in it for undocumented workers? How would it tangibly improve their lives?

To be clear, I hope something like the Rubio-Bush-Obama framework eventually becomes law. While far from perfect, it’s better than the easily-flouted system currently in place. Maybe this PR flaw, as I see it, won’t matter much. At this point, it appears that both sides are hungry enough for a deal to ignore the dissonance of Rubio’s case for comprehensive reform.

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Marco Rubio and Mark Levin’s ‘Lightbulb’

HuffPo’s Jon Ward has an illuminating little item on Sen. Marco Rubio’s “charm offensive” into the fever swamps of the talk-radio right. The Flordia senator, Ward writes, called in to Mark Levin’s show to tout his immigration reform proposal. During the interview, Levin was “soft-spoken and receptive.” And after Rubio hung up, Levin was effusive:

He and I actually go back a ways. When he was at five percent in the polls, this was the first show to endorse Rubio against [Charlie] Crist, and I’m glad I did. You don’t have to agree with everything he said, but listen to him. He’s a thinker, he’s trying- he’s a problem solver. He’s a conservative. Like I said, you don’t have to agree with everything he said, but he even said, ‘Look I’m open to ideas, I’m open to suggestions, let’s advance our principles. It’s a problem, we’ve got to address this problem, and he’s right. We have de facto amnesty right now. When he said it, it set a light bulb off. Maybe I am a little slow. I said, ‘Well he’s right, we do have de facto amnesty.’ Which is exactly why Obama wants to really do nothing.

The features of Rubio’s immigration plan — beef up border security; send undocumented workers to the “back of line” for legal status; set up some kind of employment verification system — are essentially the same as the Bush administration’s comprehensive reform proposal (which, in the interest of disclosure, I should note that I was in favor of, then as now). Mark Levin hated it. Initially, I thought Levin warmed to the Rubio-Bush framework because conservatives today are in a kind of political wilderness that made 2007 look like a vacation; accepting immigration reform, while a bitter pill, makes crude tactical sense.

But Ward, sharply, detects a different motivation at play in Levin’s mind:

The new construct will be that President Obama and Harry Reid, if they don’t agree with Rubio’s ideas on immigration reform, just want to retain “amnesty.” This is a significant shift, if Levin warms to it and the rest of talk radio follows suit. In the past, they have thrown the “amnesty” tag at just about anything that moved. Under this new construct, they would still be yelling about “amnesty,” but only in describing the Democratic plan for immigration reform, and not all plans except building a border fence.

The lesson here is that you can easily lasso paper tigers like Levin. The trick is to get them to redirect toward Obama the hatred they previously directed toward your impure legislative thoughts. Then a “lightbulb” will go off.

Well played, Marco Rubio. Well played.

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On Immigration, Rubio Recycles Bush

To salvage some sort of positive news from the fiscal cliff deal, in which taxes went up but spending didn’t go down, it was said that the real winner was George W. Bush—with 98 percent of his tax cuts having been made permanent. If that’s the case, then Bush 43 is winning again. This time, on immigration.

Rising Republican star Sen. Marco Rubio revealed the basic outline of his stepwise plan to reform immigration law. The central question of any such proposal, of course, is how it deals with the 12 million or so undocumented workers who live here illegally: if not deport them, what then?

Rubio’s plan, according to a Wall Street Journal interview, is as follows:

The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. “Assuming they haven’t violated any of the conditions of that status,” he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years—but Mr. Rubio doesn’t specify how many years.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It was a central element of the Bush plan and its McCain-Kennedy congressional vehicle. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes wrote of the plan in 2006:

Earned citizenship would permit the 12 million immigrants living illegally in the Unites States to apply for citizenship. They would be required to work for six years, commit no crimes, pay back taxes, and learn English. Then and only then could they get in line to become citizens, a process that takes five years.

Fast forward to last year’s presidential campaign, and you find former Gov. Mitt Romney employing the same sort of rhetoric: secure the border first; let those here illegally come out of the shadows and apply for legal residence or citizenship; and send them to the “back of the line.”

What we’ve got here, then, is the nonrestrictionist Republican line on immigration since the mid-Aughts.

For the record, I happen to favor it. It’s realistic, humane, and mindful of the rule of law. But there’s nothing particularly new or creative about it. And if it’s indicative of the kind of policy entrepreneurship we can expect from Rubio in the future, color me unimpressed.

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Justice Delayed

Most Americans probably assume that once the wheels of government start turning there is a certain inevitability about the outcome, but that may not be true if there is an election coming up. Last week there appeared an interesting news item relating to Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Menendez reportedly employed illegal immigrant and teenage sex offender Luis Abraham Sanchez Zavaleta as an unpaid intern in his Senate office. The Homeland Security Department (DHS) instructed federal agents not to arrest Sanchez, currently 18 years old and an immigrant from Peru, until after Election Day even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sought to detain him in early October. Several complaints by the ICE officers seeking to reverse the DHS decision were rejected.

According to the Associated Press article, “Menendez, D-N.J., who advocates aggressively for pro-immigration policies, was re-elected in November with 58 percent of the vote. He said his staff was notified about the case Monday, he personally learned about the case from AP’s reporting and knew nothing about whether DHS delayed the arrest. The senator said his staff asks interns whether they are in the country legally but cannot check to be sure… During discussions about when and where to arrest Sanchez, the U.S. reviewed Sanchez’s application for permission to stay in the country as part of President Barack Obama’s policy to allow up to 1.7 million young illegal immigrants avoid deportation and get permission to work for up to two years. As a sex offender, he would not have been eligible.”

Is it credible that a foreign-born intern working for a U.S. Senator would be hired without any background checks that would, inter alia, determine whether or not he or she was an American citizen? Or that office staff “cannot check to be sure” about immigration status? No. Apart from the imminence of an election, could there possibly have been any good reason why the arrest was deliberately and repeatedly delayed by someone in authority at DHS? No.

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Fiscal Cliff: On The Wall, The Writing

It’s happening.

What was it that Nate Silver tweeted on election night? “On The Wall, The Writing”?

On that score, the Washington Post reported last night:

Many GOP centrists and some conservatives are calling on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to concede on rates now, while he still has some leverage to demand something in return. Republicans are eager to win changes to fast-growing safety-net programs, such as raising the eligibility age for Medicare and applying a less-generous measure of inflation to Social Security benefits. … “Quite frankly, some people in this 2 percent who call me, they’re more worried about the fiscal cliff than about the rates going up a couple points. That has bigger risk for them,” said [Rep. Steven] LaTourette, a close Boehner ally who is retiring in January.

Like I was saying earlier this week, Republicans are slowly but unmistakably realizing that Obama is going to get his revenue (or most of it), so they might as well seize the chance to force Democrats to agree to modest entitlement reforms.

And then what?

Then the world will keep spinning.

Matt Miller shared a dystopian vision wherein this “fiscal cliff” is but a prelude to another debt-ceiling showdown, which will beget more “forcing device” legislation, leading to yet another “cliff,” and hence the threat of another financial calamity, world without end. Similarly, Yuval Levin, whose crypto-apocalyptic temperament is just itching for a “clash of visions” confrontation with the statist-welfarists of the capital-L Left, writes:

Middle-ground solutions can put off the need to decide, but they cannot make it go away. And until we take some meaningful step in one direction or another, we’re going to continue to muddle through showdowns at the edges of cliffs.

Perhaps I’m overoptimistic, but I think not.

My “hunch” (sorry, Nate Silver), is that, despite the bitterness and braying of the Erick Ericksons of the right, most Republicans have grown weary of this recurring cycle of manufactured crises. At some point, they’re going to want to pivot toward the urgent need to “rebrand” the GOP. At some point, they’re going to want to tackle immigration reform — an effort the “wise men” deem essential to building a winning electoral coalition in the future.

Are Republicans, just weeks after a drubbing that turned on the perception of solidarity with the working- and middle-class, eager to look like the handmaidens of the rich again? Does the question even need to be asked? The party will surely continue its internal ideological battle. But I’m wagering that said battle’s direct bearing on the function of the global economy is coming to a merciful end.

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‘I Like to Be in America’

“Puerto Rico,
You lovely island . . .”
“I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!”
(From West Side Story, “America,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

With much of the focus by Republicans on “demographics” and as conservatives review their positions on immigration and attitudes towards American Hispanics post-election disaster, they should be paying more attention to one historic vote that took place on Election Day 2012.

A majority of the electorate of Puerto Rico voted on that day to follow in the footsteps of Hawaii and Alaska in achieving full American statehood and becoming the 51st state.

Congress will still have to admit Puerto Rico before it can become a state, and it is doubtful that the Republicans who now control the House of Representatives would support a move that would probably result in Democrats winning two more Senate seats and increasing their numbers in the House.

After all, while the residents of the Atlantic Ocean island are not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections, close to 85 percent of stateside Puerto Ricans did vote for Barack Obama on November 6th. You do not have to be a political expert to presume that Obama’s margin of victory on the island would have been as wide as among Puerto Ricans in New York.

So expect the issue to become a central debating point in Washington and certainly among Hispanics, with Democrats pledging to support Puerto Rican statehood if they take the House in 2014.

More than 3,700,000 people live on the island that came under U.S. control in 1898 and an even larger number of Puerto Ricans (more than 4,600,000) reside in the 50 states and DC. As the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S., Puerto Ricans represent a significant electorate bloc.

And in the aftermath of the 2012 election, just as the party tries to recover from Mitt Romney’s abysmal performance among Latino voters, GOP opposition to admitting Puerto Rico into the union could help Democrats in promoting their Republicans-hate-Hispanics narrative even if GOP lawmakers suddenly declare their support for comprehensive immigration reform that until recently many of them decried as “amnesty” or if party activists draft Senator Marco Rubio to run for president in 2016.

For what it’s worth, the 2012 Republican Party platform did express support for the right of Puerto Rico to be admitted into the union and President Obama has yet to state his position on the issue. But according to a recent FOX News Latino report, most GOP House members are opposed to the idea, and with conservative House Democrats in decline, it is more than likely that Democratic members will back statehood if politicians in Puerto Rico decide to push the issue.

In any case, while Republican politicos will face an electoral dilemma — whether opposing statehood for Puerto Rico would antagonize Latino voters — conservative intellectuals will have to consider whether admitting a state whose official language is Spanish and one that would immediately become the poorest American state (with a median household income of about $18,000, half that of Mississippi, currently the poorest state) squares with the movement’s traditional principles that reject multiculturalism and bilingualism and discourage economic dependency on government largesse.

That stateside Puerto Ricans are a culturally segregated community that is largely poor (with the average income of its members lower than that of Cuban and Mexican Americans) raises the specter of an additional 4 million Puerto Ricans that will be in position to use their new political power to promote a distinct cultural identity and to squeeze more cash transfers from Washington.

At the very least, the dilemmas involving Puerto Rico’s prospects for statehood make it clear that the notion of winning the hearts and minds of Latino voters goes beyond making compromises on the issue of illegal immigration or picking Hispanics to run for political office.

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Four New Jersey Vignettes

We had a death in the family and had to go up to central New Jersey for the funeral last weekend. It was extremely difficult finding a room as most of the hotels are still full of people who are homeless as a result of hurricane Sandy. When I did find a vacancy online, I quickly moved to lock it in with my credit card.  The reservation bounced back, with a message telling me that the room was no longer the $130 posted price but had instead increased to $160. I did the reservation form a second time only to have yet another message pop up telling me that the price had increased to $190, plus tax. I reserved the room at that price as I had no choice. I wondered to what extent the hotels were playing the same trick with FEMA, with the State of New Jersey emergency management, and with the hapless survivors who were paying their own way.

We talked to a number of people who had lived on or near the Jersey Shore. Many were either retired or were approaching the end of their working careers and had lost absolutely everything in the storm. The entire Shore area has been reconfigured and whole communities embracing a specific economy and way of life have been swept away. Many homeowners did not have flood insurance as it was prohibitive (upwards of $4000 per annum I was told). Like New Orleans, this was a disaster that will play out over many years as reconfiguration and reconstruction take place in the peculiar New Jersey human environment that combines widespread corruption with sometimes astonishing altruism. Our local best-in-New Jersey pizzeria (a significant accolade) had lost its power for a week but was up and running overtime when we arrived dishing out hundreds of free pies to people who had lost their homes. Read More…

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A Partial Dissent on Immigration

Daniel and Michael reject a Republican embrace of amnesty. They argue that it’s a quick fix that will alienate the base, working and middle-class whites, while failing to attract support among Hispanics. I’d add that the willingness of the conservative establishment to move to the left on this issue shows where their real concerns lie. They wouldn’t dream of compromising on a bellicose foreign policy and remain stalwart defenders of regressive taxation. But they’re happy to add millions of low-wage, low-skill workers to the legal labor force, further driving down wages.

But amnesty is a straw man. There are immigration reforms that Republicans could pursue without abandoning the base. These include several of the ideas in the DREAM act, especially a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military or earn a college degree. Combined with the closure of the family reunification loophole and stricter enforcement at the border and in the workplace, policies like these could help Republicans move beyond a dogmatic law and order position without giving up conservative principles.

Would this kind of compromise draw significant Hispanic support to the GOP? By itself, it would not. As Heather Mac Donald points out, immigration is not the only reason that Hispanics vote for Democrats. Hispanics make disproportionate use of government programs. They tend to want those programs to continue, which the Democrats promise to do. What’s more, many Hispanics are turned off by the individualist rhetoric of the contemporary GOP. They suspect, rightly in my view, that GOP policies favor the rich.

So immigration reform is not a sufficient condition of Republican success among Hispanic voters. It may, however, be a necessary one. If they want to win national elections, Republicans need to convince more voters that they care about people who aren’t white, old, or “job creators” (read, employers). A package of immigrations reforms that reward personal accomplishment while cracking down on big companies that rely on cheap illegal labor could help accomplish that.

Of course, there any many Hispanics who will never vote for Republicans. But that’s okay: Republicans don’t need to win Hispanics. They only need to be more competitive.

Daniel points out that George W. Bush, who made a point of support for a liberalized immigration policy, won only 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. That’s true. But he also twice won the presidency.

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