Winning the Immigration Debate and Winning Elections

Republicans can win the immigration debate by outflanking the Democrats and seizing ground they typically hold by reframing the debate through the reappropriation of the Left’s rhetoric. The Right’s focus on immigration as a “law and order” issue, and as a national security issue, is correct. But framing the debate in humanitarian terms, and thus seizing ground from the Left, will allow Republicans to attract different people to their view on border security while retaining their traditional base. Moreover, it’s a position that the Left cannot refute.


Securing the border is a human rights’ issue. Thousands of immigrants seeking a home in the U.S. die during their journey. State Representative Steve Toth, who speaks of the immigration problem in humanitarian tones, has pointed out the economic toll this takes on Texas towns and ranchers who regularly confront this grim reality. Taking away the option of crossing the border through the construction of a border fence, investment in more sophisticated arial surveillance, and more border guards would serve as a deterrent for those seeking to cross the border and thus prevent deaths associated with the perilous journey. The allure of leaving a distressed situation in their homeland for a better tomorrow is so enticing that people are willing to risk injury, death, and capture. But if we prevent the opportunity to cross then the allure will prevent them from putting their own lives at risk.


Securing the border requires not just putting up barriers to crossing but also reducing the incentives to cross. Corruption and violence are so bad in Mexico and Central America that people are desperate to escape an environment in which the police offer no protection from the violence of drug cartels. But correcting this situation is not exclusively the concern of the U.S. nor a problem that can be solved everywhere at once. In addition to dedicating its own resources, the U.S. must work with the international community to secure the Mexican-side of the border to keep it free from violence and corruption. The violence and corruption in the Mexican border towns prevents private investment in businesses and it limits the involvement of NGOs. If the U.S. and the international community can successfully work with Mexican authorities to reign in the corruption and violence then private investors willing to provide microloans, or those willing to invest large amounts of capital, and other forms of assistance will be more likely to get involved. Once the private sector is able to get involved the quality of life will improve and thus diminish the incentive to seek solace in the U.S. This is but one example of how the government can aid free market solutions. If the government can stave off the violence and corruption then private enterprise can help take care of the immigration issue and the accompanying humanitarian crisis. By providing jobs and social welfare programs in Mexico, thus improving the lives of those who live there, the incentive to cross the border illegally will be reduced.


On the U.S. side of the border employers must be held accountable for employing illegal immigrants. As long as U.S. employers are able to exploit cheap, immigrant labor at a level that is higher than what the individual would have received in her home country, people will be willing to cross illegally. The exploitation of cheap labor by those in a desperate situation is but one more humanitarian dimension of the immigration crisis. Whether employed in a domestic capacity, or with a traditional employer, illegal immigrants work below the minimum wage because they have to. And employers can get away with paying them far below market value because they can. The exploitation of immigrant labor must be stopped if we are to secure the border. Jobs, even low paying jobs, are one reason people are willing to cross the border illegally. If this incentive is eliminated then crossing illegally will be less attractive.


The immigration issue is a humanitarian crisis that should be spoken of as such. The solutions should be crafted in terms of a free market understanding of incentives. The U.S. must aid free market solutions by providing stability along the border and improving the rule of law in Mexico and the U.S. This is a pragmatic and conservative solution to an issue that will improve the lives of Americans and immigrants and help Republicans win elections.