Why Republican Candidates Skirt the Real Immigration Issue

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GOP White House contenders have a powerful incentive to use extreme rhetoric about the border -- and to keep quiet about workplace enforcement border full.jpg

David Frum is an immigration restrictionist who argues that the U.S. is hurt by permitting so many unskilled workers to come here. But he doesn't think that the conservative rank-and-file understands the politics of the issue. "Debate over a fence on the Mexican border is a distraction, and I'd suggest: a deliberate distraction. Any fence will be tangled in litigation: it took 11 years of lawyering to build just 14 miles of fence between San Diego and Tijuana," Frum writes. "Enforcement must take place in the workplace -- and that is precisely where the most powerful lobbies in US society wish to prevent it from occurring. I think it is powerfully symbolic that the most strident voice demanding a fence, lethally electrified no less, is that of Republican candidate for president Herman Cain -- a past chief lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, one of the most powerful of the anti-enforcement lobbies in Washington."

Frum is right: If you're a restrictionist (personally, I'd like to see more folks allowed to come here legally), the test to gauge whether Republicans are actually intent on substantially decreasing illegal immigration, or just pandering, should be their position on workplace enforcement. It's common to hear them decry birthright citizenship and in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants as "magnets" that exacerbate unlawful border crossings. But jobs are the draw that ultimately matters. GOP candidates benefit from obscuring that reality, because they are determined to win the support of the business community, which is understandably averse to increased workplace enforcement. It would disrupt many industries, impose extra human resources costs on companies wary of breaking the law, and result in fines and other penalties for lawbreaking companies.

Thus the awful status quo wherein someone can rise to temporary front-runner status in a GOP primary joking about the death by electrocution of Mexicans, but wouldn't dare to joke about arresting CEOs who deliberately hire illegal immigrants or prosecuting upper-middle-class homeowners who do the same. At GOP fundraisers, bad ideas like that are no laughing matter. Unlike restrictionists, I don't think illegal immigrants who are employed and law-abiding are hurting America so much as contributing to it, so until they're made citizens, which I'd like to see happen, I'd rather focus enforcement efforts on human smugglers, gang members, and other criminals. Another option would be to grant amnesty to any illegal immigrant who came forward to show that he'd been hired sans documents, fine his employer, and give him a green card. That would end the hiring of undocumented labor quickly, but is totally politically unrealistic.


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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