A new debate has arisen among prominent conservatives over whether passing an immigration overhaul would be good or bad for Americans, with columnist George Will weighing in on the pro-reform side and talk-show host Laura Ingraham arguing against. This is a good thing. Until now, few prominent conservatives have been willing to venture into the pro-immigration reform camp, which meant that the arguments advanced in favor of reform tended to be dismissed by grassroots conservatives. Now maybe the actual arguments will get proper attention.
Three issues are central to the debate: border security, assimilation and the economic effects of immigration. Those on the right who oppose reform focus especially on the first two. But the facts don’t bear out hand-wringing on either one.
The border has never been so secure. The flow of illegal immigration into this country is at a 40-year low, and deportation rates are higher than at any time in our history. Conservatives can — and should — claim some credit for this. We now spend more on securing our borders than we do on all other federal law-enforcement efforts combined. And President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any president before him: 2 million since he took office.
Recently, in his column, Will made the case that conservatives may be underestimating the assimilative power of the American experience. In response, Ingraham argued that “20.8 percent of Americans don’t speak English at home,” noting that the percentage is up about 3 points since 2000. But her data don’t actually make the case that present-day immigrants, mostly Hispanics, are assimilating at slower rates than previous groups, as she apparently believes.
Immigrants — from Germans and Italians of earlier years to Chinese and Mexicans today — have always chosen to speak their mother tongue at home in the first generation. German immigrants not only spoke German at home, but also supported German language education in public schools where large concentrations of German speakers lived. And early in our history, a vote in Congress to print the Congressional Record in both English and German narrowly failed. As late as 1980, more than three million Americans spoke either Italian or German at home.
Today, immigrants and their children make up 25 percent of the American population. It should be no surprise then that many of these families speak their native tongue at home, especially because so many of these families live in multi-generation households.
What really matters — the true test of assimilation — is what happens in the second and third generations. And here, Will is right. English is the primary language of second- and third-generation immigrants, including Hispanics. English is the language they use primarily or exclusively at work (93 percent, according to surveys by Pew Research), and it is the language for news and entertainment among Hispanics, increasingly even for immigrants.
As for the economic impact of immigration, Will has all of the facts on his side. Immigration provides a net positive increase to GDP. No reputable economist disagrees; the question is only how large. Without immigrants and a growing population, our economy will stagnate, especially as the population ages.
Ingraham points to the economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s, ignoring the inconvenient truth that those decades were among the highest in illegal immigration, which peaked in the mid-’90s. Immigrants came by the millions during that period to take jobs Americans shunned in agriculture, meat processing and the service and hospitality industries. Those jobs still go wanting, despite high unemployment.
The majority of Republicans favor immigration reform, including a path to legalization for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants living here now. Conservatives need an open and honest debate on this important issue — but until recently, very few conservatives have been willing to wade into the rough waters. As one who did so early and consistently, I welcome other conservatives to join the growing ranks of those of us making a conservative case for the importance of reforming our broken immigration system.
The best way to stop illegal immigration is to create a viable way for those who want to contribute to our economy and become American to do so legally.