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Potomac Watch

Alien Notion: The Right Case for 'Amnesty'


August 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

One charm of conservatives is that they're suspicious of anything that seems too popular. And they're usually correct. But a notable exception is the backlash on the right against President Bush's trial balloon to allow a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Business, labor, Catholic bishops and even the media all like the idea. Most American Hispanics are delighted, as is President Vicente Fox, the most pro-American leader in Mexico's history. So naturally many conservatives are glum, suspecting one more liberal plot.

"They fear that it will put millions of illegal Hispanic immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship, with far more of them voting Democratic than Republican," writes conservative-chronicler Ralph Hallow in the Washington Times.

These rightists are wrong, however, and the reason is the difference between static and dynamic politics. Take a statistical snapshot of politics today and most Hispanics are Democrats. But look down the road and the only way Republicans can be a majority party is if they do better among Hispanics. A Bush amnesty is precisely the kind of large political event that could shake up those allegiances.

Former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson made a similar static blunder with California Prop. 187 in 1994. With many more white than Hispanic voters, he figured he'd gain more by arousing anti-immigrant sentiment. He won that year, but at the long-term cost of turning millions of Hispanics into Democrats and the GOP into a minority party.

Now the same people who egged on Mr. Wilson are saying every new immigrant will be a Democrat. Well, they certainly will be if that GOP attitude persists. By this logic the GOP can never attract enough Hispanics, so why even try? Better to use immigration as a wedge to drive more white voters into the GOP. Viva -- sorry, long live -- the white male majority!

You don't have to be Karl Rove to doubt this strategy. For one thing, the advice often comes from British transplants, the same folks who turned the Tories into a minority. As Grover Norquist quips, "they haven't assimilated yet" to America's pro-immigrant culture. And Mr. Bush already took 60% of the white male vote in 2000; how much larger a share can he really expect?

Meanwhile, Hispanics are gaining in overall voter share, from 5% in 1996 to 7% last year and an expected 9% in 2004. Matthew Dowd, Mr. Bush's pollster, says that this trend is already turning safe GOP states into tossups, notably Nevada and Florida.

And Hispanic voter growth will continue whether or not there is more immigration. The Hispanics already here and on the path to citizenship guarantee it. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that at current immigration trends Hispanics would constitute 24% of the U.S. population by 2050. But even with no new net immigration, which no one is talking about, Hispanics would still be about 20% by 2050. Republicans couldn't write off Hispanics at either level.

The other mistake is assuming that Hispanics will always be mainly Democrats, like blacks and Jews. But as Michael Barone argues, they are culturally closer to Italians, who started their American lives as Democrats but have become much more Republican as they rise in income and assimilate. Hispanics are more culturally conservative than the rest of the Democratic base.

Unlike blacks, adds Mr. Dowd, Hispanics change their perception of the GOP as they move up the income scale. Liberalism is not part of their ethnic identity. A February 2000 Zogby poll showed that Democratic affiliation plunges among Hispanics who make more than $50,000 a year.

Then there is the potential political boost from Mr. Bush's leadership. Pete Wilson defined Republicans down for Hispanics. Now Mr. Bush has a chance to redefine his party's image back up. Republican Ed Goeas, who has polled the amnesty question for unions, says that "whoever leads on this issue will get tremendous credit" from Hispanics, who favor a qualified amnesty by more than 80%. Black and white support is in the mid-50% range.

Mr. Bush will also be able to frame whatever immigration deal he eventually cuts with Mr. Fox. Thus he will probably shy away from a politically freighted total "amnesty," in favor of a guest-worker program. Whatever it's called, it's bound to include a process by which illegals who've lived here at least five years can get green cards and eventually become citizens.

The best -- the only -- conservative argument against this is that it rewards people who've broken the law. So perhaps the amnesty could include a modest fine, as well as some requirement to pass an English course or otherwise show the desire to assimilate. As for the danger that amnesty will be an incentive for more illegal immigration, any reform is likely to include a regular work-permit system for future migrants as well.

The last amnesty, in 1986, flopped because it was traded for employer sanctions, which were unenforceable. The idea this time is to swap amnesty for temporary work visas that would help to minimize the black market in low-skilled Mexican labor. Even Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who opposes amnesty, has his own guest-worker proposal. But it lacks the political support to pass because he'd require illegals to return to Mexico first.

Mr. Gramm, who has long favored immigration, might as well relax and enjoy the Bush-Fox "amnesty"-reform. Sometimes what's popular is even good.

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