Immigration Splits Conservative Parties in Both the U.S. and the U.K.

Whereas reform is creating rifts in the GOP, it's driven by splintering among the British Conservatives.
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Reuters

A proposal for sweeping immigration reform, hammered out by the bipartisan group of senators called the Gang of Eight, passed a key test in the Senate Monday when 67 senators -- including 15 Republicans -- voted in favor of a compromise bill with an amendment strengthening border security.

The amendment, designed to address mostly Republican lawmakers' concerns about border enforcement, doubles federal agents on the U.S.-Mexican border to about 40,000 and will provide them with more high-tech equipment. The reform bill's core -- and its most controversial debate fodder -- is the "path to citizenship" for over 11 million undocumented migrants, but this measure is balanced out by increased border control, including $1.5 billion for more fencing and more money for surveillance drones and customs agents.

While many Republicans lawmakers are pro-reform, others say the path to citizenship would encourage illegal immigration and bring huge costs to the American taxpayer.

In the U.S., the debate over the bill is creating an acrimonious split in the Republican Party, but in the U.K., the narrative of immigration overhaul has been shaped by the fracturing of the Conservative Party. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who leads a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic party, recently announced tighter rules on immigration, with key provisions limiting access to U.K. welfare for migrants from the European Union, restricting migrants' access to the National Health Service, and requiring landlords and employers to verify the status of their tenants or face heavy fines. These measures are framed by the goal of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" per year from hundreds of thousands.

While these measures address legitimate concerns in the U.K. about the unusually high immigration under the Labour government from 1997-2010, critics say Cameron's measures are too draconian and will discourage bright and qualified foreign students and workers from coming to Britain. They feel Cameron is trying to stop voters and his own Members of Parliament (MPs) from defecting to fringe nationalist parties over immigration and EU issues. In part to assuage calls for renegotiating the U.K.'s membership terms with the EU and calm growing anti-EU sentiment, in January Cameron announced that he would hold an "in-out" referendum on the EU in 2017 should his party be re-elected in 2015.

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Republican detractors of the U.S. reform bill say the path to citizenship amounts to "amnesty" that would encourage further illegal immigration, and they want stronger border security measures to be in place before the path is opened. They also argue that the current provisions for new citizens to pay back taxes -- a condition for citizenship -- are too weak, because it requires them to come forward themselves.

Disagreements are not necessarily split along party lines. Some Democrats share the concern over border security and enforcement, for example. But it is the disagreements among Republicans that are most notable. As one column put it, "[t]he current U.S. Congress is unique in having three political parties: One Democratic and two Republican."

Party infighting has been especially evident in the blogosphere. In April, Erick Erickson wrote on RedState.com that pro-immigration advocates on the right are "attacking other conservatives who disagree with them as racists, slavery supporters, bigots, haters, baby killers, un-Christian ... They are waging a coordinated attack between Senator [Marco] Rubio's office and others against conservative stalwarts like the Heritage Foundation and Jim DeMint." Also in April, some conservative commentators falsely accused Rubio of supporting a measure that would give free cell phones to illegal immigrants -- quickly dubbed "MarcoPhones."

The split is also hampering the party's rebranding efforts. Some Republicans realized that after Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential election, the party needed to rethink its strategy and address its image problem. Having Rubio leading the charge on bipartisan immigration reform efforts as a key member of the Gang of Eight was one way of doing this. Rubio, a potential 2016 candidate and great hope for reversing the party's slide among Hispanic voters, is the son of Cuban immigrants (though whether they are in fact 1959-Castro exiles , as he once claimed, is still a matter of dispute).

Rubio and his fellow Republicans in the Gang of Eight will walk a fine line if and when the bill is put to a vote in the House of Representatives. If the border security amendment is perceived as too strong, the GOP could lose the chance to win back the crucial Hispanic vote and an opportunity to rejuvenate the party. They will be vilified by the Democrats and by much of the public. If the amendment is perceived as too weak, meanwhile, they will be vilified by their own party.

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In the U.K., the current immigration debate is linked to the country's relationship with the EU. While there was always some concern among both politicians and the public (stoked by certain factions of the media) over the effect of a possible influx of Eastern European immigrants on public services, the EU's travails have thrust the issue into the spotlight.

Prime Minister David Cameron is broadly pro-Europe, but the U.K. itself has generally been more EU-ambivalent. The eurozone's economic and political crises have reinforced this "Eurosceptic" belief -- particularly among but not limited to conservatives -- that Brussels and Britain are fundamentally incompatible, and it manifests itself in claims that European courts undermine the U.K.'s common-law tradition or that EU bureaucracy harms London's financial competitiveness.

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Alexa van Sickle is an assistant editor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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