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Jordan Bruneau: Republicans must stand up to Trump on immigration

February 18, 2019

Rather than quietly admitting defeat on his border wall stand, President Trump punted the issue to a bipartisan group of lawmakers and threatened to shut down. On Friday, he signed a compromise bill to keep the government open, but also moved to declare a national emergency so he could get money for his wall elsewhere.

Trump’s approach keeps his divisive anti-immigrant campaign on the front page while robbing Republican lawmakers of the chance to pivot to a uniting pro-growth message. For political and policy reasons, courageous Republicans must stand up to Trump and moderate the party’s immigration position.

Immigration is not a winning political issue for Republicans. President Trump tried to make last year’s midterm elections a referendum on immigration. He backed cutting legal immigration in half, eliminating birthright citizenship and separating families at the border. It backfired. Republicans lost 40 House seats and the Speaker’s gavel. The losses were especially pronounced in suburban districts, many of which were longtime Republican bastions.

Trump evidently didn’t learn his lesson from this loss. Instead, he’s chosen to double down on the issue by shutting down the government for the longest period in modern U.S. history. Polls show Americans oppose this approach. If he doesn’t change course, he threatens GOP control of the Senate next.

Republicans currently enjoy a three-seat Senate majority. But they face tough 2020 election prospects in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina, all of which saw Democratic gains in the midterms. Even Texas Republicans have begun sounding the alarm about their 2020 Senate prospects.

Demographics aren’t on Republicans’ side. According to a new analysis by Pew Research, one in 10 voters in 2020 will be an immigrant, and one in three will be a minority. Voters from the millennial generation and Generation Z will outnumber voters from the Baby Boom and Silent generations for the first time. Republicans must craft a positive message that reflects this electorate.

Republicans should moderate their immigration position not only for political reasons but also because doing so is good policy. The country currently has 6.9 million unfilled jobs, and the unemployment rate is hovering above a half-century low. Youth, minorities and high school dropouts are all enjoying unemployment rates that are bouncing off record lows. Employers across the country say their number one concern is the inability to find workers. This unmet labor demand artificially prevents the economy from running at capacity.

What’s a Republican immigration policy reform that would address the economy’s needs while also relieving pressure on the southern border? Expanding work visas. Currently, there are essentially no legal paths for less-skilled economic migrants to enter the U.S. to work for a few years to improve the lives of their family in line with American tradition. In other words, there is no “line” to enter legally.

Work visas would allow immigrants to immediately contribute to the economy while paying taxes and contributing to Social Security. These would address the root cause of illegal immigration: People will always want to come to the U.S. to pursue a better life. A border wall merely tries to address the effect. Work visas would also allow border patrol to focus on national security threats, not those pursuing the American Dream. There’s a proud Republican tradition supporting such work visas, with both Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush proposing them.

Courageous support for expanding work visas would free Republican lawmakers from Trump’s anti-immigration anchor while also taking a major step to solve illegal immigration. In contrast, Trump’s current approach will only build a wall between the party and millions of younger, minority and suburban voters.

Jordan Bruneau is the senior policy analyst for the Becoming American Initiative, which describes itself as a right-leaning 501c4 organization dedicated to making the conservative case for legal immigration.