Rahm Emanuel: Republicans Need a 'Permission Slip' to Vote for Immigration Reform

The former White House chief of staff thinks the GOP would support new legislation if they can get political cover in their home districts.
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The Atlantic

Speculation on the fate of immigration reform has seen mixed outlooks over the past few months, but at least two voices from opposing political camps are somewhat optimistic. At an interview with The Atlantic's Steve Clemons on Tuesday, Grover Norquist and Rahm Emanuel both spoke about strategic ways to get the issue through the House.

The real cause of the impasse, Emanuel said, is election-time optics for House Republicans.

"This is really not a problem for Democrats. This is really an issue that's in the Republican party -- it's in their hands. There are members of Congress that are running from specific districts -- few of them pop their heads up and think about the party's future. They're thinking about their own," he said.

Despite worries about tough races ahead, Emanuel said, influential figures on the right have the power to grant Republican representatives a metaphorical "permission slip" to work toward a solution on the issue.

"It is very important to have Grover [Norquist], talk radio, [and] the religious community engaged, because there's a group that do need a permit slip to say yes, and no Democrat's every going create that. The idea of going to the White House [with a plan for] 'how to create the permission slip for a Republican member of the House to vote for something' is like a dumb idea," he said.

But do conservative thought leaders want to engage with the issue of immigration? At the very least, Grover Norquist does. He believes that the economic argument for higher levels of immigration should sound familiar to conservatives.

"I work with all of the nice Republicans in the House and Senate to encourage them to do what Reagan did. This is the Reagan Republican deal; this is not compromise, this is not moving to the left. This is mobility of labor, mobility of capital -- this is what they teach you in in Hayekian economics," he said.

Norquist expressed little tolerance for those who argue that immigration would hurt American workers, even taking a moment for a political-philosophy throw down against Thomas Malthus, the 19th century philosopher who argued that a growing population will necessarily outpace the availability of resources like food and water.

"The argument that immigration depresses wages is the argument of children. People who talk that way are Malthusians, and I think we have a general consensus that Malthus was a little off in his predictions. But they're also anti-people. How do you argue with people who think that people are the problem? A freer economy at all levels, including the mobility of labor, will make the country stronger, the economy stronger -- [it] will make everybody better off," he said.

This exchange may give the impression of bipartisan consensus in Washington, at least in terms of ideology. Emanuel has been a longtime Democratic strategist, while Norquist is a self-described Republican known for advocating tax cuts and Reagan-era economics. Both argued that Republican principles align with reform efforts: Creating pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, expanding legal limits on who can enter the country, and improving border security. But is there a greater ideological divide at work in the debate about reform?

In her recent Atlantic article, Molly Ball argues that the debate hinges on something else: "It's about whether the pragmatists can seize the reins of the Republican Party, or whether the angry, oppositionist, populist strain retains control." Whether or not you agree with her characterization of immigration reform opponents, it seems that only certain Republicans are ideologically aligned on the issue. For example, Iowa Republican Steve King argues that pathways to citizenship are a form of "amnesty" for people who have broken the law. As he reportedly said earlier this month, "I'm not going to support any kind of legalization because legalization is amnesty, is eventual citizenship if not instantaneous citizenship, and if we do that we get more law breakers." Others, like Texas Republican Randy Weber, think allowing more legal immigration obscures the more important issue, which is border security. With this group, blessings from conservative thought leaders and media may not be enough to ensure successful passage of legislation in the House.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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