Amnesty poison: Did it kill Eric Cantor?

Source Flickr Author DonkeyHotey

WASHINGTON, June 12, 2014 — The post mortems of Eric Cantor’s primary defeat are focusing on a singe cause of death: Amnesty.

The Drudge Report ran a large number of stories on illegal immigration in the upper left corner of the page — prime real estate — in the days leading up to the primary. Whether the intent was to harm Cantor’s primary chances, it can hardly have been helpful to him. David Brat, the winner in that contest, made amnesty a major point of his campaign, and the conservative and Tea Party factions of the GOP, both strong in Virginia, loath amnesty with a passion.

Websites like illustrate a problem with the amnesty debate: There is not wide agreement on the meaning of “amnesty.” It appears to mean whatever its critics want it to mean at the time. The writers on mostly identify “amnesty” as granting legal status to all illegal immigrants currently in the United States. It would be hard to find anyone in the GOP leadership who favors that. Some pundits suggest that “amnesty” means not just legal status, but a promise of citizenship for all illegals. Not even President Obama has suggested that, though the Democrats have supported an “arduous” path to citizenship open to illegal immigrants.

What some Republicans do favor is much more limited, and some of it has nothing to do with any definition of “amnesty”:

  • permitting people brought here as children who have gone on to earn college degrees or serve in the armed forces to obtain legal residency status (so-called “DREAMers”);
  • expanding the number of H-1B non-immigrant visas – visas for people in specialty occupations like medicine, engineering, computer science and physical sciences – granted each year from the current 85,000 to something between 150 and 200,000;
  • immigration court reform to stop the assembly-line process of deporting illegal immigrants while improving fairness and efficiency;
  • a path to legal status for illegal immigrants;
  • a robust temporary-worker plan – that is, a legal guest-worker plan.

The immigration reform bill proposed by the Senate “gang of eight” contained versions of most of these, coupled with provisions to enhance border security. It was the idea that there be a path to legality for illegal immigrants that branded that bill as an amnesty bill.

What’s in a name? What’s “immigration reform”? Is it amnesty? Is it the name that is the enemy? Cantor supported some sort of “immigration reform.” Even David Brat would admit that we need immigration reform, unless he foolishly believes that the system we have is working well. But now that immigration reform means amnesty, what will we call it?

Cantor supported an expansion of H-1B visas. Brat opposed them, and some critics view expansion of the program as a back-door form of amnesty. It is difficult to see how anyone who holds that point of view could favor any immigration at all, but concern over the H-1B program highlights one of the fears driving opposition to amnesty: the fear that immigrants will take American jobs.

The support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some Silicon Valley behemoths to reform immigration and expand the H-1B program is taken as proof positive that the point if immigration is to expand the pool of low-wage workers in the U.S., thus driving down business costs and keeping American citizens out of work. It is unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg and the USCOC are motivated by altruism, but the alienation of conservative forces from business interests speaks to the growth of populism and the breakdown of traditional party lines.

Distrust of big business is no longer a shibboleth dividing conservatives and liberals. As much as Democrats like to cast the anti-immigration stance of conservatives as racist, the Cantor defeat was not the victory of racist Republicans over warm and fuzzy Republicans. It was the victory of populist Republicans over big-business Republicans.

That isn’t a split that Democrats can easily exploit right away. While many Democrats side with Hispanics in the immigration debate, that puts them at odds with labor groups, which were central to the scuttling of President George W. Bush’s immigration reform efforts in 2007. Unions have diminished greatly in power while Hispanic power will only grow, so it’s a no-brainer for Democratic strategists to decide which of their support groups they’ll jettison in the long-run. In the short-run, though, Democrats can’t afford to spit in the face of labor; they’ll do that when Hispanics can deliver reliable majorities without labor.

The debate over amnesty is poorly defined, but the central point has nothing to do with amnesty and everything to do with jobs. That’s why Republican ideas like the DREAM Act and expanding the H-1B program are so easily repudiated by Republicans. It isn’t, as race-hustlers like Al Sharpton suggest, that Republicans can’t support anything Obama supports, but that the terms of the debate have shifted.

Six years after the Great Recession, unemployment has fallen to 6.3 percent, but more Americans than ever are without jobs, or are in part-time jobs, or are in jobs with stagnant wages. Most Americans don’t think the economy is heading anywhere good, and many think the “American Dream” is dead. Under those conditions, an uneducated immigrant is just another mouth to feed at the government teat, and an educated immigrant is just another competitor for a job.

Immigration reform, by whatever name we call it, is critical. American security, prosperity, and our basic ideals all demand that we make fundamental changes to immigration policy. Eric Cantor’s defeat is not an indication that the subject is too toxic to touch, but whoever touches it had better have clear proposals that identify goals that job-stressed Americans can support. And that means something better than fuzzy “immigration creates jobs” and “it’s a humanitarian imperative” claims that have been thrown out.

If Cantor’s loss means that immigration will be ignored, then the wrong lesson will have been learned, and that will be a loss for America.

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