For years now, I have been hawkish on the issue of immigration. Like many on the Right, I think a border fence/wall with Mexico makes perfect sense. I oppose any and all forms of amnesty—be it a full pathway to citizenship, or merely a pathway to legal status—because it is manifestly unfair to those who immigrate legally, instills tremendous perverse incentives and abets humanitarian disasters in the form of horrible Central American human trafficking, is an affront to the rule of law, and distorts the very concept of sovereignty of which the Constitution’s Preamble speaks. In my first piece I ever wrote for a conservative website back in August 2014, “Why We Fight,” I even put illegal immigration at the very top of my list of grievances with the Left:
We fight because the Left seeks to undermine our rule of law and our national sovereignty at the southern border, masquerading under the guise of being ‘pro-immigrant’ or ‘pro-human rights’ but with the ulterior motive of emancipating the nation from the outmoded constraints of cultural ‘Americanism’ and inching toward the Left’s risibly quixotic but sincerely held utopia of global government. We fight because the Left invokes ‘prosecutorial discretion‘ to justify a de facto implementation of the DREAM Act amnesty by executive fiat, notwithstanding the current crisis on the southern border that their lawlessness and amnesty magnets directly helped foment.
In October 2014, I wrote that there would be “no more important issue” for Republicans to run on in the 2014 midterm elections; and in November 2014, I argued (and still think) that President Obama’s DAPA executive amnesty amounted to such a willful, bad faith constitutional distortion so as to clearly fall under the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” criterion of justifying the commencement of impeachment proceedings.
On the legal immigration side, I agree with Reihan Salam’s (excellent) assessment that a global superpower in our position does not benefit from mass levels of low-skill legal immigration, and share Ramesh Ponnuru’s worry that a guest-worker program is misguided and amounts to the legal formalization of something akin to a permanent underclass. I share many conservatives’ worry that our exceedingly generous asylum laws are ripe for fraud and abuse. I have a healthy skepticism of the ability of first-world Western republics to easily assimilate large volumes of immigrants from other cultures who do not share many of our core values; and as a Jew, I look at what has has happened in Europe with de facto open-borders immigration, and I simply shudder. While I do not agree with impractical and unenforceable calls to ban everyone of a certain single religion from entering the U.S., I do think bans on all legal immigration from certain problematic countries—or regions—is common sense and amounts to good policy.
This presidential cycle, I cheered from home during debates when my preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, would hit Gang of Eight member Marco Rubio on the issue of amnesty. At various times, I would tell Republican friends that I thought the immigration issue was just as crucial this cycle as some of the others on which I based my support for Cruz: constitutional fidelity and stalwart judicial nominations, bringing the debt under control and reforming our sclerotic monetary policy regime, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our ally Israel in the shared mission of decimating the global jihad. I also thought Cruz’s immigration-themed “Invasion” ad was one of the best ads any candidate ran all cycle:
And yet, despite the fact that the stubby-fingered, orange-hued, narcissistic vulgarian has run on a “platform” that might charitably be described as focusing on the immigration issue above all else (notwithstanding that he criticized Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” platform as being too harsh, helped bankroll the Gang of Eight amnesty effort, and has hired foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago), I am firmly and avowedly #NeverTrump. I have explained why before numeroustimesonthiswebsite. (I am also, of course, #NeverHillary. As between one of the most brutally corrupt, serially lying, constantly scandalized cattle futures/Vince Foster/Benghazi-tattered national security-undermining politicians of the past half-century and her old donor Donald Trump, I choose neither. As between HIV and Ebola, I choose neither. As between cyanide and arsenic, I choose neither. You get the idea.)
And yet, we saw what happened to the immigration issue this cycle: it got completely hijacked by an overtly nativist, xenophobic demagogue the likes of which this country has not seen in decades. Those on the Right who have for years preached that “immigration is the only issue that matters,” like Ann Coulter, have been in love with Trump since day one. Many other immigration hawks on the Right—some for whom I have great respect—such as Laura Ingraham and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach fell right in line with the bloviating orange man. Perhaps most frustratingly, as anyone on Twitter knows, Trump’s “alt-right” zombie army partly (largely?) consists of the most thoroughly unholy mixture of white nationalists, Jim Crow-nostalgic David Duke acolytes, Malthusian eugenicists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites that we have ever seen in modern American politics. Indeed, from a broader level, the fight to keep traditional conservatism as the ideological face of the American Right—and to vanquish the “alt-right” and its abettors, such as Breitbart News—is now something akin to our existential task.
As I have witnessed the rise of Trump, I have done some soul-searching about ways in which conservative—i.e., not “alt-right”—border hawks may have implicitly or subconsciously fomented this lamentable current state of affairs. At the same time, I have taken some solace in a line from a 2003 law review article by one of my favorite constitutional scholars, Michael Stokes Paulsen; writing about the sorry 19th-century history of bad actors usurping potentially valid legal arguments about the states’ prerogative to interpret the Constitution independently of the federal government, Paulsen wrote that “the correctness of a constitutional theory cannot be judged by its misappropriation and misapplication by constitutional hijackers.” I cannot help but analogize to the immigration issue: the merits of border hawks’ arguments cannot be judged by its misappropriation and misapplication by “alt-right” white nationalists, Malthusians, and Jew-haters.
Nonetheless, to merely say this will not suffice. If we are ever to reclaim the immigration issue from the fringe and make pro-border security, pro-sovereignty, anti-open borders arguments legitimate again, we need to take some concrete measures. Here is a non-exhaustive list of just a few ideas.
Improve on Rhetoric – This should really go without saying. Trump literally opened his campaign by complaining about Mexican criminals and rapists. What the actual hell? I have no doubt that Mexico, like any country, produces some criminals and some rapists. But the intense vitriol directed at economically important trade partners and geopolitically sensitive powers, such as Mexico and China, respectively, really needs to stop. It is one thing to talk endlessly on the campaign trail about the ambitious would-be nuclear hegemons in Tehran; it is quite another to demagogue about one-third of NAFTA. It is entirely valid to talk about the Mexican government’s utter fecklessness in controlling the brutally violent drug cartels near the U.S. border; but stop talking about how they’re shipping all their rapists across the border. On this front, conservatives can learn from the Texas GOP, which has historically done a nice job of balancing strongly pro-border security/anti-amnesty policies and party platform planks with thoroughly non-Trumpist, non-tonedeaf rhetoric.
Stop Complaining About H-1B Visas – I have no doubt that the H-1B visa system—which is for high-skilled foreigners—has elements of fraud. In a prior position, I once had to research and write a memo on fraud in the asylum-seeking process, and it is very real; I am sure that it also exists in H-1B visas. But conservatives should focus on fixing the fraud, rather than limiting or doing away with H-1Bs in their entirety. To put it simply, H-1B recipients are the most meritorious of all foreign workers. They are disproportionately more skillful, more highly educated, more assimilated and/or more likely to easily assimilate, and unambiguously help the economy more than any other class of immigrants. As but one example, high-skilled immigrants have founded 51% of U.S. billion-dollar startups; to note that these startups have employed many Americans (both native-born and immigrant) and improved all Americans’ real quality of life would be to state the obvious. Ted Cruz has formerly spoken eloquently and very positively of the net economic benefits of H-1B visas and high-skilled immigration; it was when he flipped on H-1B visas this cycle that I was singularly most critical of him.
Discuss the Need to Reform Legal Immigration, More Broadly – More generally, the vast majority of legal immigration to the U.S. is based on “chain migration”—which is to say it is explicitly based on family ties. In today’s world, this is insanity. Almost every other Western-style country—including as wide a sample as Canada, Australia, and Germany—has a more explicitly merits-based immigration system, and the U.S. economy naturally loses out when we are not competing for the best and the brightest on the world stage. Our legal immigration system is broken, and it serves no one justice to ignore that obvious truism. We can simultaneously argue for stauncher border security, limiting low-skilled immigration, and even precluding all legal immigration from certain problematic countries and regions whilst we simultaneously argue for both increasing H-1B visas (yes, whilst fighting H-1B fraud) and streamlining legal immigration toward a more merits-based regime, more broadly.
Thoroughly Repudiate the Racists and Xenophobes – This should also go without saying. Trump has done a truly terrible job of this: his son has given interview time to white nationalists on the radio, he has been notoriously (and likely, purposefully) slow on repudiating David Duke and his ilk, and his wife unfathomably claimed that a Jewish journalist “provoked” the Branch Trumpidian cultists and thus deserved the horrendous anti-Semitism she received. Truly wretched stuff. It is incumbent on conservatives to continue to strenuously criticize the Trump carnival act on these grounds, and to demonstrate stronger leadership when we can. There is no room in American conservatism for ugly racists, white nationalists, and anti-Semites. Period.
As I said, this is a non-exhaustive list. But if conservatives are ever to cogently argue immigration priorities again and prevent total usurpation of the issue by the nefarious “alt-right,” these minimum steps should be followed. It is perhaps the only way to make border security and opposition to amnesty great again.
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