The Immigration Demons Haunting the GOP

Listening to the current debate on immigration within the Republican ranks, one would think that demons occupy either side. Proponents of amnesty or quasi-amnesty (or anything that could even marginally be construed as any form of amnesty) are targeted with insults challenging their conservative credentials and sense of justice. On the opposite extreme, hard-liners are labeled “haters”, “heartless”, and anti-immigration, their compassion questioned and grotesquely distorted.

Both of these extremes do great disservice to the party. Conservatives need to avoid painting caricatures of each other. These insults weaken the party, prevent reasoned debate, and offer Democrats potential talking points like Christmas presents wrapped with silver bows.

The immigration debate involves many principles worthy of serious discussion. The two most important–often exaggerated or underestimated by opponents and the media–are justice and compassion.

The principle of justice is intimately connection to the rule of law. Those who prioritize justice above all focus on the following question: Does a sovereign nation like the United States have the right to set immigration policy and, as a result, remove any and all breakers of immigration law, even if certain persons have lived in the United States for decades, have contributed to society, and attend church? Hardline conservatives answer with an impassioned and simple “yes”.

Many conservatives, on the other hand, believe that the primary concern in the immigration issue should be compassion. Presumably, many consider it immoral to deport whole swaths of people from their homes, especially those hardworking and otherwise moral people who have resided here for decades and who have contributed something important to society. Many undoubtedly are interested in garnering support specifically from the Latino community, hoping that the fastest growing minority voting bloc could be swayed by compassionate immigration policy.

The crucial point here is that for those whose number one priority is justice, compassion is not unimportant. Conversely, those who emphasize compassion generally do not dismiss the rule of law. It appears that Newt Gingrich, for example, seeks to prioritize both. Many hardline conservatives appeared crestfallen by their interpretation of his immigration policy, which equated a plea for compassion with amnesty. But Gingrich never suggested that compassion should trump justice–only that it should be a crucial consideration.

Both camps have legitimate viewpoints. It is essential that the Republican Party attend to both in developing a thorough, multi-faceted immigration policy–one far superior to the “comprehensive immigration policy” the Obama regime supports.

Behaviorist principles can inform the issue of immigration. By definition, all reinforced behaviors will continue or increase in frequency or intensity. Surely, illegal immigration makes up a set of behaviors that have been reinforced for decades. Illegal immigrants are directly rewarded by powerful financial incentives, including employment opportunities and an array of entitlements. Indirectly, they are reinforced by the weak Executive Branch follow-through on immigration laws. These are the “magnets” to which several Republican candidates have often referred.

Understanding this, who can blame immigrants who enter our country illegally? Presumably, they are aware of basic immigration laws; surely, they are equally aware that these laws are weakly, if ever, enforced. Can a parent blame a child who regularly sneaks candy and every time he gets caught, his parents simply say, “Oh Junior, you shouldn’t have” but do absolutely nothing about it (like locking the cupboards or allowing the child candy only when he has eaten a healthy meal)? When the behavior continues, the blame should be laid on the agent of reinforcement (parents), not the child.

Now imagine if after years of allowing the child to sneak candy, the parents determine to change their policy. They announce that they will keep the cupboards full with healthy food and few sweets, which must be earned. Additionally, any sneaking sweets will result in the removal of the child’s favorite reinforcers (e.g., dessert, electronics, sleepovers) for a week. And to the child’s surprise, the parents follow through on their policy.

No one would deny the legitimacy of this change in policy and enforcement (i.e., an increase in the rule of law). But some cry foul at the notion that we could legitimately change our immigration policy. Of course, there is a marked difference between being deported from the greatest nation on earth and losing one’s XBox for a week.

Just as children are–often inadvertently–trained to misbehave, our nation’s policies have trained immigrants to come here illegally. For decades, we have welcomed them in and now we are complaining that they are here. Again, we have the right to change immigration policy and to enforce it actively and consistently. However, punishing current illegal immigrants for behaving in ways that we have actively encouraged seems unfair to many. More importantly, it focuses on the wrong source of the problem: our own immigration policy and its enforcement.

The question remains: which principle trumps all others? The Republican Party actively and nobly struggles with this question; we have been witnessing this struggle during the Republican primary debates. Voters are getting a sense of whose immigration policy satisfies the principles that match their priorities.

Voters are quite able to prioritize and emphasize multiple principles. It would be wise for Republicans to recognize that these voters–particularly independent-minded voters–likely desire a candidate whose policies simultaneously and successfully emphasize multiple principles. Voters will be repulsed by a candidate whose one-track mind lacks nuanced thinking. Republicans must be skilled and assertive in explaining their position on immigration in a way that protects them from appearing to lack this balance and complexity.

George W. Bush advanced the cause of conservatism by espousing principles and policies under the banner of “Compassionate Conservativism”. Conservatives would do well to skillfully communicate an immigration policy that espouses both justice and compassion. True compassionate conservatism should reflect a commitment to work hard to balance the rule of law with compassion. Comprehensive immigration policy would not only be moral, but pragmatic. It would satisfy those voters for whom the rule of law is supreme and those who emphasize compassionate treatment of illegal immigrants. We don’t have to choose only one.

I call all Republican candidates to not only cease using caricatures in attacking their opponents, but to seek to honor the principles underlying the difference in their opponents’ policies. A candidate who believes that justice should remain one of the highest priorities–second only to mercy and compassion–is not heartless, any more than a conservative who seeks to prioritize compassion is guilty of flaunting the rule of law.

The Republican nominee will have plenty of opportunity to release his or her venom on Obama’s policies, which err on many sides and whose priorities are radically different from those of almost every Republican candidate. For now, they should follow the dictum of Ronald Reagan to “speak no evil of a fellow Republican.”