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Progressives and Immigration Reform

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

Immigration reform legislation is probably dead this year -- which, no doubt, pleases some conservatives. But the issue isn't going away. And if conservatives hope to become the dominant force in American politics, we need to figure out a way to resolve the problem without alienating the country's fastest growing demographic, Hispanics.


I delivered that message last week to some 10,000 conservatives gathered at the annual CPAC meeting in Washington. The message seemed to resonate among many in the audience -- a minority to be sure, but a fairly large one.

I wasn't surprised. Conservatives are not monolithic in their views on immigration policy, even if the media sometimes act as if anyone who favors immigration reform is a liberal -- or, in the increasingly popular buzzword, a progressive. To the contrary, I would argue that the real "progressives" in the immigration debate are the immigration restrictionists who offer nothing but Big Government/Big Brother solutions to the problem -- and those who favor market-based legal immigration are the true conservatives.

We've been here before. The Progressive Movement was instrumental in restricting immigration in the early 20th Century. Progressives believed in the ability to perfect society and its inhabitants. They promoted birth control, forced sterilization, and eugenics to weed out native-born "undesirables" and pushed for immigration restriction to keep out Italians, Jews, Poles, and others they deemed unfit to become Americans. Their shining achievement was the 1924 Immigration Act, which largely shut the door on immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

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Today, groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and its research arm, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), are the inheritors of the Progressive Movement's anti-immigration mantle. John Tanton, who founded FAIR, CIS, Numbers USA and a plethora of other anti-immigration groups, is a self-described progressive who first became involved in public policy issues in the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood, later becoming president of Zero Population Growth.


Like the earlier progressives, these immigration restrictionists believe that government regulation is the answer to almost everything. In 1986, they devised a plan to end illegal immigration by turning employers into gatekeepers and forcing every American who wants to hire a babysitter to be treated the same as a Fortune 500 company. And the whole scheme didn't work, as many of us warned at the time. More illegal immigrants have entered the country since the passage of the 1986 immigration bill than entered before it was passed.

But like the true progressives that they are, these restrictionists believe the problem can be fixed with more regulation. Now they want every American to carry an identification card that signifies he or she is eligible to work and they want every employer to seek permission from the federal government before hiring anyone. And they are perfectly content to establish huge government databases with information on every person who hopes to be employed -- and to trust that the information is 100 percent accurate and secure.

I'm sorry, but there is nothing conservative in that approach. It fairly reeks of the kind of hubris that is the hallmark of progressivism.

A true conservative approach to legal immigration reform is one that assumes government isn't any better at predicting future labor needs than it is at predicting the weather. True conservatism trusts individuals and the free market to make better decisions than government bureaucrats.


We need a legal immigration system that works -- one that allows the numbers of immigrants and temporary workers we admit to move up and down with the unemployment rate. But groups like FAIR and CIS don't want that. They want to virtually eliminate legal immigration (though they'll settle for reducing it by 90 percent) and they'd prefer a population about half the size of the current U.S. population, according to their own pronouncements over the years. Restricting immigration is only the first step in their progressive program to perfect America.

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