The Fall of the Pro-Immigration Republican, and What It Means

From the moment Donald Trump walked onto the stage on June 16th, 2015, and decried the flow of “crime” and “rapists” into the United States from Mexico, it was clear that he was a different kind of Republican. In years past, top conservative leaders in Congress expressed openness to pro-immigration reforms and proposals, and even recent presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney expressed approval for certain laws accommodating undocumented immigrants. Illegal immigration generally tended to be talked about more as an issue in need of a thoughtful, compassionate, and comprehensive fix, and you would seldom hear a Republican talk about cutting down on legal immigration. This long streak of passivity came to a grinding halt that corresponded with the rise of Donald Trump and his special brand of populist-nationalism. Now the American political environment is seeing a long-trend where more traditionally pro-immigration Republicans are either abandoning their long-held beliefs or are becoming marginalized within their own party. As a result, the central pillar of American society that is multiculturalism has been increasingly shunned by the rank-and-file of the Republican Party, and the basic practice of immigration is endangered by the rising influence of nativism in GOP politics.

Conservatives have long had good reason to support general immigration. Even ignoring moral arguments, mainstream economists have regularly found that immigration boosts national economic output, innovation, education, employment, and more. These long-term positive trends have also been linked to additional positive short-term trends, among them faster economic development and heightened innovation; these findings taken as a whole put the practice of immigration into a positive economic light. In the late 20th century most prominent Republicans, Ronald Reagan among them, generally considered already-present undocumented immigrants to be a low-priority issue. After all, those immigrants often tended to be low-skilled workers who took on risky jobs that few native-born laborers wanted, and forcefully deporting foreign workers would violently jar the overall economy.

This relative indifference to illegal immigration has remained a popular viewpoint in the 21st Century. Mitt Romney consistently expressed his belief that “legal immigration is critical for America”, while also opting for a more passive system of “self-deportation” when asked how he wanted to deal with undocumented immigrants residing in the country. The eternal maverick John McCain co-authored two comprehensive immigration bills, one in 2006 and another in 2013. Those two bills never passed, but not from lack of support. Long-fought compromises which yielded increased border security funding, tightened visa systems, and general amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed the Senate with bipartisan support on both occasions, but neither were ever signed into law. The fate of the 2013 bill was especially egregious. In a show of good faith, a bipartisan group of eight Senators formed a working group informally known as the “Gang of Eight”, including Republicans Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Marco Rubio. These eight Senators agreed on and proposed a bill known as the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act”, which would have provided amnesty to undocumented immigrants, increased border security funding, and a reworked visa system. The bill drew a great deal of enthusiasm from both parties in the Senate and passed by a 68-32 margin. Unfortunately, Speaker John Boehner said any immigration bill needed to start by making sure “border security and interior enforcement… come first.” He then invoked the Hastert Rule, which allows the Speaker of the House to prevent a bill with majority support from being voted on. The work of the “Gang of Eight”, as a result, has been left for dead; since the bill’s defeat, the Republican Party has moved away from a generally supportive stance, and has instead began to embrace more nativist proposals. Whether this trend is due to legitimate concerns in the minds of the Republican faithful or is simply the result of a messaging ploy, the foundations of this new direction follow flimsy logic.

It was clear from the get-go that Donald Trump was a different breed, and immigration was one of the issues where he diverged most strikingly from what used to be the typical Republican ideological prescription. Instead of principled opposition to illegal immigration while skirting around the grimy details of enforcement, he dove right in by announcing his intention to create a “deportation force” to remove undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Instead of the common refrain, where Republicans had previously decided to focus enforcement resources on immigrants who had committed crimes, Trump unequivocally called for the deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants despite a number of clear indications that this would not be feasible. Trump’s divergence from the norm did not apply simply to illegal immigration either; legal immigration, long a treasured tool in the Republican policy toolbox, was in his sights as well. A campaign press release indicated that he planned to pause the entirety of legal immigration into the country, while later proposals still would have led to a cut in fifty-year legal immigration of 30 million people, according to Pew Research Center. His campaign’s success on the issue of immigration defied logic, as polling regularly found a distinct lack of support for mass deportation or cuts to legal immigration.

Donald Trump was the first politician in recent memory to win nationally on a nativist platform, but his victory encouraged many more to follow in his footsteps. Ed Gillespie, who once said that “[a]nti-immigration rhetoric is a political siren song, and Republicans must resist its lure by lashing ourselves to our party’s twin masts of freedom and growth — or our majority will crash on the shoals”, ran for Governor of Virginia on a platform abounding with “tough” rhetoric on immigration before his defeat on November 7th. In August, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) with the help of influential White House advisor Stephen Miller introduced an updated version of the RAISE Act. The purpose of the RAISE Act according to the White House is to reform America’s legal immigration system so that it prioritizes workers with relevant skills instead of family members or people with diverse ethnic backgrounds. However, this argument fails to pass muster since the bill would not actually increase the number of number of employment visas based on merit. Instead, it merely cuts the number of family-based visas. As a result, the proportion of employment visas would increase, but the number of skilled immigrants entering the country would not. If one is to believe the argument that merit-based immigration benefits the country far-more than family-based immigration, then why not  replace half of the annually-issued family visas with merit based visas? Instead, the proposed plan simply slashes the number of people coming into the country wholesale while offering no new opportunities or incentives for highly-qualified immigrants. There is a high chance that the RAISE Act’s provisions will be attached to any legislation attempting to codify protections for those who have lost DACA protection, and work is already underway behind the scenes to ensure that that is the case. Republican Senators who have dared to speak out against the new anti-immigration trend, like Jeff Flake and John McCain, have been lambasted by the President and labeled as “Republicans in Name Only.”

In the long run, what does this mean? It does seem like skepticism of immigration is the new chic in the Republican Party. The lack of outcry against the RAISE Act by any Republican Senator not a member of the original “Gang of Eight” indicates their general reluctance to speak out in defense of immigration’s many national benefits. The West Wing, with Donald Trump at the helm and aided by advisors like Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions, harbors deep disdain for immigrants. That attitude has infected Capitol Hill, as the few Republicans who disagree are quickly being ushered out and seem on track to be replaced by those who fit a more “Trump-like” mold. Congressional Democrats may be forced to assent to massive cuts in legal immigration to secure protection for those who came into the country illegally as minors, and as a result, the Great American Melting Pot may see the beginning of its end. The success of nativists has become evident in how the American Right debates these issues: the goal shifts from incentivizing immigration to stemming it, and criteria tighten as “extreme vetting” becomes the rule instead of the exception. The time for this could not be poorer. In an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, the consequences of self-inflicted isolation will surely be worse than ever before.