The Republican Party Needs A Reset On Immigration

Jerry Bowyer
Posted: Nov 17, 2012 12:01 AM

Since the Romney/Ryan ticket’s loss last Tuesday, the Republican Party has been going through a period of soul searching.  Much of that is useless propaganda about how the party needs to move to the ‘center’ (whatever that is) on its tax-cutting growth agenda.

But some of it is a genuinely helpful re-examination of the GOP’s relationship with immigrants and immigrant voter groups. This is a helpful but small step in the right direction. Liberalization of immigration laws was a theme of this column before the election (and a theme of this columnist for many years before). In order to foster more discussion of this issue, we reproduce below an article which appeared in the print edition of Forbes in September of this year.

For those who believe that we are a Johnny-come-lately on this issue, only interested in promoting immigration in light of last week’s electoral defeat, you can find links to columns which I’ve written on this subject going back to 2006 after participating in a radio debate with Pat Buchanan on the issue and a follow up here.

Finally, I add this exhortation to my GOP brethren: If you see your problem with immigrants as merely one of marketing, then you will not succeed. The nativist wing of the party is not just politically inconvenient, it is morally and economically wrong. The point is not to capitulate to political necessity; the point is to have the right policy. The right policy is a growing economy, non-burdensome immigration laws, a welfare system which promotes work, not dependency, and a culture of assimilation, not isolation.

Latinos are religious, morally conservative and tend disproportionately to join the military and start businesses. They are natural members of the conservative coalition.

Nevertheless, some of the loudest voices in the conservative movement are advocating that Latinos here illegally be forced from the country. Big-government skeptics are oddly clamoring for something that only big government could accomplish.

Expelling 15 million people against their will would constitute the largest forced migration in American history. No one has ever forcibly moved that many people without concentration camps and mass death through plague.

If there’s another way to do it, please show me a historical example. What I hear is slogans like “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” Slogans move callers to dial in to talk radio, but they don’t move millions voluntarily back into poverty and squalor. That is done by unhappy soldiers manning “hell ships” like the Mercurio , which was used to deport masses of Mexicans during “Operation Wetback,” our last and much smaller deportation attempt, which ended with the soldiers committing mutiny. In the end, you either let the bulk of them stay or herd them out. If you want to call the former amnesty, go ahead.

After all, amnesty has a well-worn legal tradition. It means forgiveness. After the Civil War Abraham Lincoln offered amnesty to Rebel soldiers. Runaway slaves received it after emancipation. Vietnam draft dodgers, too. Conservatives often argue for tax amnesties.

Immigration laws are no different. If we liberalize them, should we still punish the people who violated the laws that we later deemed too harsh?

Conservatives have rightly argued that widespread tax cheating shows that taxes are too high, and widespread violation of the national 55mph speed limit was a sign that the law was too restrictive. Americans concluded that widespread violation of prohibition laws demonstrated that too much restrictiveness can also undermine the rule of law.

Ronald Reagan signed amnesty into law in 1986, inviting 3 million “illegals” to become “legals.” Would the man who didn’t want to deport 3 million now deport 15 million? Reagan had a completely different idea about immigration and the border than the wall/moat/electrocution/drone model. His diaries show an emotional discomfort with militarized borders with Mexico. He met with the president of Mexico to try to discuss ways to do something better with the border than to turn it into a fence.

Milton Friedman believed that even illegal immigration was good for freedom. Ludwig von Mises believed that human capital should be free to cross borders just like financial capital. Forcible interventions into immigration were really just forcible interventions into the labor market designed to restrict wage competition, just like compulsory unionism. Von Mises saw that “there cannot be the slightest doubt that migration barriers diminish the productivity of human labor.” Both Friedman and Von Mises had concerns about immigration driven by the welfare system, but the solution for both was to shrink the welfare state, not to freeze wage migration.

Immigration was one of the causes for the American Revolution. Jefferson complained King George wasn’t letting us get enough of it: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

Healthy and growing nations talk this way, and Malthusianism be damned. It was taken as a given by the founders that population growth is good. Anything else has just too much of the death rattle of empire to it.

The Constitution puts immigration law in the hands of Congress, which can loosen and tighten the standards at will, with one exception: Children born here are citizens. So what are the family-values conservatives going to do, send the parents packing, while the kids stay here?

We need a reset on this issue. If the Republican Party gets tagged as the nostalgic, static, anti-Latino party, it’s dead. And we will have brought it on ourselves.


Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for