Immigration debate forces Republicans to choose

By Alan Bean

The gun debate has revealed some troubling tensions within the American conservative movement.  It is a misnomer, of course, to speak of the American conservative movement, we are really dealing with dozens of overlapping movements locked in a troubled marriage of convenience.  The same sort of uneasy alliance exists on the left.  Major shifts in political fortune often reveal deep fissures within the constellation of groups and individuals Hillary Clinton once called the “great right-wing conspiracy”.

Conservatives have a deep distrust of centralized government, but they are often willing to support the unmitigated flowering of government authority if it promises to get drugs off the streets, reduce crime or enhance America’s reputation in the world or secure the nation’s borders.  When three-quarters of a steadily-growing Latino electorate pulls the lever for the opposition, the need for change is obvious.  Suddenly the conservative desire to maintain white hegemony (“taking back our country”) is in tension with the conservative fear of “jackbooted thugs”.

In an opinion piece for The Hill, Mike Lillis directs us to recent remarks from South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, by all accounts the staunchest of staunch conservatives:

While Gowdy has not made immigration a focus of his two years on Capitol Hill — most often toeing the party line without fanfare — he recently rejected the notion that the government should round up and deport the millions of illegal immigrants living in the country.

“You want them knocking on your front door?” Gowdy told Gannett this month. “You want them going to elementary schools and rounding up the kids?”

The “You want them knocking on your front door?” argument is a variation on Martin Niemoller’s “first they came for the socialists” lament.  If the jackbooted thugs are breaking down the doors of illegal aliens today, the reasoning goes, they will be kicking down your door tomorrow.

Unfortunately, to follow this reasoning, it is necessary to grant undocumented Mexicans the same moral standing “real” Americans enjoy, and that is precisely what the white-is-right folks refuse to do.

The unfolding immigration debate has begun within the Republican Party.  The central question is whether undocumented aliens should be given a path to citizenship.  Marco Rubio assures his detractors that it will take years, even decades, for undocumented field laborer to move from work visa, to green card, to citizenship.  They will pay fines and back taxes as an act of contrition for breaking the law.  They will be shunted to the back of a very long line. Young men and women who begin the process could be in advanced middle-age before they emerge as Americans in good standing.

To Mr. Rubio’s conservative friends, that’s just a fancy substitute for “amnesty”.

Memory is much neater than history.  We remember an America where immigrants had to stand in line and follow the rules.  Back in the day, we tell each other, you couldn’t just become a citizen by wandering over the border and staking your claim; you had to produce your documents and follow proper procedure.

Historical reality isn’t that neat; the rules have changed dramatically over time.  There have been times when white people passed between the United States and Canada as if the border had no meaning.  There have been times when the US-Mexico border was porous. There have been times when strict limits were placed on immigration from Asia or Eastern Europe.  Jewish immigration was severely restricted before, during and after the Second World War.  At other times the words “Give me your tiredyour poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” was a reasonable description of  American immigration policy.

If you are white and Protestant, chances are that your ancestors found it remarkably easy to obtain American citizenship.  There were no lines, no waiting periods, and certainly no taxes or fines.  You just presented yourself at the border and, unless the authorities had good reason for keeping you out, you were in.

That’s how my ancestors came to Canada and the United States, often moving back and forth between these countries with remarkable ease.  My father’s ancestors settled in Pennsylvania before heading north to Ontario and from South Dakota north to Saskatchewan.  My mother’s parents traded a life of poverty and deprivation in England for a life of poverty and deprivation in Ontario.  If you could book passage, you were in.  Simple as that.

But these are white people we’re talking about.  Not particularly impressive white people, to be sure.  They had little money or education, and most of them spoke little or no English upon arrival, but they were white people so they got a pass.  Their full humanity was unquestioned.

And let’s face it, the current immigration debate is driven by the fact that most of the people coming to America today are not white.  I became an American citizen a few years ago in a ceremony involving hundreds of newly minted Americans.  Just a handful of us hailed from Canada, England, Germany or Sweden.  I know, because each national group was asked to stand together.  When Mexico was called, half the room was on its feet.

But the line of Mexican applicants is long; so long that most of the folks standing in line have little chance of success.  If you are poor, uneducated and lacking in high-tech competence, there is no line. So, if you want to come to America badly enough, you find a Coyote, pack up as much water as you can carry, and head for the Rio Grande.  Or you obtain a visitors visa and intentionally overstay your welcome.

If, like Marco Rubio, your family hails from Cuba, a different set of rules apply.  Make it to the border and you will be welcomed as an American citizen.  Any enemy of Fidel is a friend of ours.  Which explains why Ted Cruz, the newly elected Hispanic Senator from Texas, wants to build a wall at the Mexican border.  Ted is Cuban.

For the past thirty years, the immigration debate has been driven by an intense desire to return to the days when white votes settled elections and dictated public policy.  But, moral considerations aside, is this dream becoming hopeless?  Some within the Republican Party have concluded that radical re-branding is in order.  It is no longer possible to win a national election without Latino support, they argue, and we shouldn’t be surprised that people of color are reluctant to vote for the Party of White.  It’s certainly not because the Democrats are enthusiastic about immigration reform, Latinos simply see the blue team as the lesser of evils.  A small shift to the center in the immigration debate would bring Latino votes streaming over to the red side of the electoral column.  Republicans can easily outflank the Democrats on the immigration issue and greatly enhance their national electoral chances in the process.

This argument will be rejected out of hand by the “taking back our country” folk.  If Latinos vote Republican, they argue, they will recreate the party in their own image.  It won’t be our country anymore; it will be their country.  And that’s exactly what we don’t want to happen.  Besides, seal-the-border politics still works miracles in southern and border states.

It’s not a question of skin color, of course, it’s all about value and tradition and language and heritage and all that other non-racial stuff that’s all about race.  Sure, we’re all equal; but some of us are more equal than others.  If the jackbooted thugs come for them, it’s okay; we just don’t want them coming for our guns.

Which side of the Republican Party will triumph in this civil war?  It’s too early to tell.  But if Republicans fail to change their image, and if Obama can unite the Democrats behind the kind of immigration reform that honors the full humanity of all humans, the Republican share of the Latino vote will be closer to 15% in 2016.