A Conservative Pathway for Immigration Reform

"The United States is both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. There is no need to sacrifice either of these concepts in pursuit of the other."

President Obama’s executive amnesty policies and failure to enforce immigration laws give conservatives an opening to unite on immigration in a way that appeals to all Americans. By holding to the principles of rule of law and fairness, immigration policy can be firm, fair and in the best interests of citizens and immigrants alike.

Comprehensive Immigration “Reform” Under Obama

President Obama failed to pursue any immigration reform while his party had a commanding majority in both houses of Congress. Following the 2012 election, many Republicans reached for the panic button and concluded that immigration reform (including amnesty) had to be done to increase support among Hispanic voters.

Liberals took notice when a Republican National Committee report called for “comprehensive” immigration reform. The president and his allies used it as a classic wedge issue to split conservatives. Pro-comprehensive immigration reform Senate Republicans teamed up with every Democrat to support S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill, which became known as the “Gang of Eight bill,” increased legal immigration limits threefold, created a guest-worker program and granted amnesty to some 11 million illegal immigrants. The measure passed the Senate with sixty-eight votes.

Rule-of-law conservatives opposed the measure. A majority of Republicans in the Senate had opposed the bill, and the Speaker of the House pledged that the bill would not come up for a vote unless a majority of Republicans supported it. It turns out that support for the measure was very shallow, even if it appeared widespread.

Almost immediately, conservatives aimed their attacks at President Obama and his unwillingness to enforce the law with respect to Obamacare, the WARN Act and immigration itself. Mistrust of the president was enough to deny the pro-comprehensive forces a majority within the Republican conference in the House.

Facts on the Ground Change: Influx Dooms Amnesty

In spring 2014, a mass of adults and children, including many unaccompanied minors, flooded across the U.S. southern border. Rule-of-law conservatives won the public debate about the cause of this influx, tracing it in large part to lax enforcement of existing law and talk of amnesty by President Obama. Polling on immigration showed a major increase in intensity as the issue dominated the news for weeks. And those who cared shared the right’s view.

The American people are increasingly wary of any amnesty policy. Candidates for office in the 2014 elections are using their opposition to the president’s policy in their campaigns. Those who ignored these trends did so at their own peril, and even prominent political leaders were not immune. Rep. Eric Cantor, then the House Majority Leader, found himself ousted in a June primary where immigration was a central issue. President Obama has postponed his executive action until after the 2014 elections. The tables have turned.

Conservatives Should Stand Their Ground, United

This is not to say that policies exemplified by the Gang of Eight bill and the president’s unilateral executive amnesty are dead in the next Congress. House Republican leadership’s statement of principles released in early 2014 shows they ultimately wanted amnesty with little guarantee of greater enforcement or border security. Supporters of amnesty know that there is very limited time after the election to pass any reform. That is because prospective conservative presidential candidates will take a hard line to build support among base voters.

A comprehensive bill that includes amnesty is precisely the wrong approach. Conservatives will reject it, meaning that it will have to draw liberal support to pass, thereby ensuring that the bill will be further left than it needs to be.

Instead, elected leaders in the House should acknowledge that our immigration system is broken, but put the blame where it belongs—on the executive branch’s failure to enforce the law. The first steps to fixing the system must be taken by the president: securing the border and enforcing current laws.

Reform Is Up to the President: The Executive Must Take the First Steps

The president has the resources needed to secure the border and enforce immigration law. He just needs to do it. Americans of all backgrounds want to see our laws enforced firmly and fairly. The influx on the southern border is likely to increase again with cooler weather, and even it if it does not, the images of the spring and early summer are still very much in the minds of American voters.