Many Republican candidates in Thursday night’s debates have shifted positions markedly to the “better controls” position on immigration of late – although John Kasich is still hard to pin down. Bush has moved toward a “border security” first position. Rubio mentioned E-verify prominently and an entry-exit system, along with the tough sounding remark that “we are being taken advantage of….” His positions are markedly different than when he was a lead sponsor of the “Gang of 8” bill in 2013. Walker explained his position as an evolution toward border security – he “heard America” – and a professed concern for making U.S. working families a priority. Cruz is always tough, though he confined his comments primarily to discussing the need to outlaw so-called “sanctuary cities” and he still misses the issue of labor displacement in his analysis. (Cruz admonished that the United States does “not want to enforce the law” because of special interest pressure and this provided an unusually candid analysis of why it’s so hard to get things done.)
In contrast to Cruz, Santorum earlier in the day also made a robust defense of the American worker and the need to cut immigration. Both he and Scott Walker are invoking the national interest in labor integrity with greater frequency.
Bush continues to insist more immigration is an essential component in job creation. And here is the emerging divide that bears watching. Can Bush continue to traffic in the age-old bromide that without mass immigration there will be no job creation? In 1980, Ronald Reagan said “We always with normal growth and increase in population increase the number of jobs.” But what we are doing is not normal. The always conservative Census Bureau projects we will have 90 million more people in just 45 years. Population growth will happen even with steep reductions in annual immigration owing to natural increase and the impact of four decades of historic highs. Can Bush sustain his position that more immigration is essential and make it through the primaries?
Why so much attention to immigration – one of the big issues in these debates? Is all this due to Donald Trump’s role in the race? He wants to “build a wall” but make a big, open door in the wall. He doesn’t tell us what that means. Credit Trump for elevating an issue that the Bush-wing of the Party wanted to minimize this election cycle. They might be talking about it without Trump, but Trump has certainly forced the rest of the field to stake out more concrete positions that they might otherwise have avoided; he brought it out front. But is something deeper happening?
Are we beginning to see a wholesale rethinking of immigration’s role in America’s future? The answer is yes. It is rooted in concern about labor competition, overcrowding, water, assimilation and related a well-placed fear that the Obama Administration has let the borders spin out of control at a time when America faces growing external threats.
Missing from the campaign discourse, however, is still a real understanding of how, at its core, the United States has let lapse its ability to manage, control and choose the levels and criteria governing overall immigration. The Obama Administration has refused to reduce immigration to match the actual labor and financial conditions of the country. No future chief executive can succeed unless immigration limits and controls are properly restored. Deep down, the American people are beginning to recognize the lack of any definable public interest in our immigration policies. All that is needed now is a messenger who can articulate the vision.