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Memento Mori

Immigration Reform, School Choice and the Proposed Border Commission

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

First, a terrific compendium of think tank analyses of immigration compiled by the wizards at is here.

If you are going to debate immigration reform, be smart about immigration reform, especially about the positions of the opposite party's intellectuals.


This means among other things being smart about school choice for immigrant children. Vouchers for newly regularized immigrants under the age of 18 empowering them to attend any public or private school in the city in which they reside should be part of the GOP amendments to any immigration reform bill. The cost of such a voucher is zero additional dollars if used in a public school and if used for, say, a Catholic school, it would be far less than the actual cost of attendance –which is about $3500 on average for a Catholic school in the U.S.—but enough to get some private schools to accept some of the young, newly regularized immigrants.

The reasons for marrying vouchers and education reform to immigration reform are many, and that is why I discussed the idea with both Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Jeff Flake on the Monday their bipartisan group's principles were announced (those transcripts are here), and with AEI’s James Pethokoukis the same day, and why I hope many more conservatives will take up the idea in the weeks ahead.

First, while education is largely a local and state issue, the federal government has plenary authority over immigration. It has the power to impose vouchers on every school district in the country when it comes to newly regularized immigrants under the age of 18. It doesn’t have to use the Constitution’s spending power or its taxing power. The Congress can simply mandate that the newly regularized young immigrants may attend any school in the city in which they locate and it can give a private school voucher payable from the Treasury. So Congress has the authority.


Next, regularizing these children and then condemning them to the worst performing elementary and secondary school does nothing to advance the assimilation goals of the genuine immigration reformer. Pethokoukis has written about this and assimilation ought to be a huge focus of regularization.

Third, as Arthur Brooks has repeatedly argued, conservatives have to be for the poor –really be for them—if we want to make the best case, which is the moral case, for free enterprise.

A grudging acceptance of immigration reform does nothing to communicate the reality of the conservative hope for immigrants. Putting the education of the newly regularized immigrants at the heart of the GOP response to immigration reform puts a moral response at the center of the conservative contribution to the debate.

Fourth, adding vouchers for immigrants under the age of 18 adds that issue to the larger debate in a way that will quickly divide the Democratic activists, some if not many of whom look at immigration reform as a means to an end of generating loyal voters and foot soldiers in their larger ambitions. Introducing vouchers into the debate throws a light on the decrepit schools into which many of these immigrants are herded –read Jay Matthew’s Work Hard, Be Nice on the origins of the KIPP program in Houston’s inner city schools—and would thus broaden the discussion into areas that the left doesn’t want to go, which brings me to the last but perhaps most appealing to some argument for marrying vouchers to immigration reform.


If vouchers can be introduced for immigrant children, school choice will quickly spread to many millions of children. The very first call I got on this idea the Monday the debate opened was from a young woman asking why her sister's kid couldn’t have a voucher but an illegal immigrant kid could. Precisely the reaction that I expected and the answer is twofold.

First, the federal government cannot mandate the use of vouchers for state governments and for local school systems. The Congress can, however, create vouchers which must be honored under its authority over federal immigration law. Even if it could expedite the use of vouchers through its spending power, it will not do so because of the blocking power of the teachers' unions. Those unions will be hard pressed to oppose immigration reform legislation because it proposes to empower the parents of newly regularized immigrant minors.

Second, and this is the key, once such vouchers are issued to and used by regularized immigrants the same sort of vouchers will be demanded by millions of parents sick to death of the failure of urban education, a failure rooted in a lack of competition. Vouchers for regularized immigrant children are the wedge to open up the use of vouchers across the United States. They are a very good thing on their own, but they would be the door to school choice for all children. Refusing to support a great reform simply because you are not first in line to benefit from it is shortsighted in the extreme.


It will take just one senator or representative to offer a well-written amendment to the immigration reform bill to thrust the issue of education into the center of this debate, and every member of Congress who starts talking this up will get very good press which he or she will deserve. Judging by their responses to my questions on the subject, neither Senator Rubio nor Senator Flake seemed to have considered doing so although the question of what happens to children brought into the country illegally by their parents in fact sparked the debate’s reopening last year, but both seemed intrigued.

The immigration reform train is moving out of the station and doing so very, very quickly. Conservatives and the GOP leaders they look to can demand that some things be on that train that serve the public good, and not settle for just genuine border security. Will the left really stand against vouchers that will obtain real education opportunity for the children they purport to be trying to help?

One final note on the debate as it opens.

The left, led by the Washington Post's Greg Plum, quickly zeroed in on the proposed Border Commission yesterday, and demanded that it only be advisory, which of course means it must be invested with real authority, and the triggers it is empowered to pull on regularization must be tied to real, measurable improvements, including the numbers of miles of new, double fencing built. Its membership must not be susceptible to being captured and manipulated, as “independent” commissions on redistricting were captured and manipulated by Democrats in Arizona and California. Governors and Attorneys General in California, Arizona, New Mexico and three northern border states as well as Florida with its immigration issues makes sense, along with three members named by the leaders of the parties in both houses. I'd like to serve on that commission in order to make sure its proceedings were publicized, and the GOP must use its appointments to serve that end of keeping the public's attention focused on the deliberations.


The new legislation must also oblige the Commission to hold public hearings, to conduct its business transparently, and to vote publicly and not by voice vote so that the elected officials and appointees serving must publicly declare that so many miles of double fencing have been built, so many agents have been deployed etc, and do so issue by issue. Such a commission could be constructed so as to really work and to force along border security improvement, but not if it is like most D.C. commissions. A citizen suit provision --so beloved by the left in environmental laws-- should be included to provide for court review of triggers that ought not to have been pulled. (In fact, the new law should make sure that environmental laws do not obstruct border security improvements.)

The Rubio-led GOP effort is off to a good start, and Jeff Flake is another welcome, new voice in the debate, but it is just a start and the Republicans have to be willing to work on the details, be innovative and continually appear in public and defend their ideas.

Beginning with vouchers for new immigrants under the age of 18.

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