For all the talk about President Obama's liberalism, his immigration agenda is the last thing you might expect: conservative.
His enemies might deny it. His staff might not recognize it. But the argument Obama presented Tuesday for a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants is rooted in economic and social conservatism.
First, in a Las Vegas address that included the words "economy" or "economic" 10 times, Obama argued that immigration fuels corporate innovation. "It keeps our workforce young. It keeps our country on the cutting edge," he said. "And it's helped build the greatest economic engine the world has ever known."
Immigrants founded one-quarter of high-tech start-ups in the United States, Obama said, and one-fourth of all U.S. small-business owners are immigrants. And yet the nation's immigration laws make it difficult for foreign students who study in the United States to remain here after college.
"We're giving them all the skills they need to [launch a business], but then we're going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else?" Obama said. "That's not how you grow new industries in America. That's how you give new industries to our competitors. That's why we need comprehensive immigration reform."
Second, Obama cast amnesty as a matter of economic fairness. With 11 million illegal immigrants "woven into the fabric of our lives," the United States has a shadow economy of under-the-table employees whose low wages and poor working conditions disadvantage law-abiding employees and companies.
"If we're truly committed to strengthening our middle class and providing more ladders of opportunity to those who are willing to work hard to make it into the middle class, we've got to fix the system," Obama said. He pivoted from that traditionally Democratic message to this more conservative appeal: "We have to make sure that every business and every worker in America is playing by the same set of rules."
He said his immigration package, which includes penalties for legalized immigrants, would create a system in which "everybody is held accountable--businesses for who they hire, and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law."
Finally, Obama cast immigration reform as part of the country's aspirational narrative. All but calling America a "shining city upon a hill," as President Reagan did, Obama declared, "Now is the time to find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as the land of opportunity."
Most Americans have immigrant roots, Obama reminded his audience. He specifically cited the Irish, German, Scandinavian, Polish, Russian, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese--"the huddled masses who came through Ellis Island on one coast and Angel Island on the other. All those folks, before they were "˜us,' they were "˜them.' "
That last line is a powerful one. It should resonate with conservatives. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, an unlikely ally of Obama's on this issue, appeared on Rush Limbaugh's radio show on Tuesday and recognized the Right's discomfort with easing immigration laws. Like Obama, his defense of immigration reform seemed to be yoked to American exceptionalism.
"It doesn't feel right in some instances to allow people who have come here undocumented to be able to stay. I know some people are uncomfortable with that notion," said Rubio, a son of immigrants. "But I would just say this to you: If this country goes downhill, there's nowhere else in the world. There's nothing else. There's no replacement for it. There's no alternative for America. It's either us or no one."
And so perhaps now Republicans in Congress have two reasons to cast a risky vote in favor of conditional amnesty. The first, of course, is the fact that 70 percent of Hispanic and Asian voters supported Obama in the 2012 election, a reflection of a demographic tsunami threatening to destroy the GOP. The second is that, setting aside blind prejudice and "us-versus-them" mentalities, immigration reform is essentially conservative.