Michael Gerson: The politics of immigration reform

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: June 22, 2013
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From one perspective, immigration restrictionists are correct. In the current political atmosphere — the atmosphere they helped to create — immigrants who become citizens will be deeply suspicious of Republicans. So are current voters who have ties to or sympathy for immigrant communities. The problem is this: While killing immigration reform may slightly extend the viability of the current Republican political coalition, it may seriously undermine the attempt to adjust it.

Such an adjustment depends on Hispanic voters being gettable by Republicans — which many restrictionists deny. Hispanics, it is argued, are inherently favorable to big government. But there is some paradoxical hope to be found for the GOP in the recent collapse of its appeal among Hispanics. This did not happen because immigrant groups became more liberal or more welfare-dependent. It happened because Republicans seemed more hostile to their interests. A GOP political strategy might begin by removing the stick they have put in the eye of a rising demographic group — the main political argument for supporting immigration reform.

This won't be enough. Recent immigrants are naturally concerned about a working social safety net, a working public education system, and a working job training system. Republicans will need to offer serious reform proposals in these areas. And this requires a positive, active, market-oriented role for government that competes with more centralized and bureaucratic Democratic approaches.

The GOP's political goal is modest. It doesn't need to win majorities among minorities, just avoid lopsided losses. But the challenge is larger than it first appears — not merely to accept an immigration bill, but to start a period of ideological creativity and persistent outreach.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP