Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Illegal immigration the fulcrum on which the GOP nomination teeters

I doubt he'll be rewarded for it -- certainly not in this cycle of Republican primaries and maybe not in this lifetime either -- but Ohio Gov. John Kasich performed a significant public service in last night's GOP debate when he pointed out the absurdity of solving the illegal immigration problem through mass, forced deportation.

"If people think that we're going to ship 11 million people who are law-abiding, who are in this country, and we're somehow going to pick them up at their house and ship them out to Mexico -- think about their families! Think about the children!" Kasich said. "So you know what the answer really is? If they've been law-abiding, they pay a penalty, they get to stay. We protect the (border) wall, anybody else comes over, we ship them back. But for the 11 million people, come on folks, we all know that you can't pick them up and ship them across the border. It's a silly argument. It's not an adult argument. It makes no sense."

Jeb Bush, to his credit, jumped in to support Kasich.

"It would tear communities apart and it would send the signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is," he said of the mass deportation approach proposed by Donald Trump and others. "Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal. They're doing high fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this."

Brian Fallon, Clinton's press secretary, quickly confirmed:

Trump, not surprisingly, disagreed, as did Ted Cruz a few minutes later. "If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose," Cruz said, framing the issue as a question of economics, with cheap illegal labor driving down the wages of American citizens.

I have some sympathy with that latter argument, but unfortunately, the time to make it would have been 10 or 20 years ago, when the great influx of undocumented workers was still underway. In fact, I and others did make that argument at the time, pointing out that the only way to stem the inflow would be to enforce the law more aggressively at the employer level.

That didn't happen, and it didn't happen in part because some of the same Republicans now arguing against amnesty worked hard to prevent workplace enforcement by the federal government. Business wanted the cheap labor. As I've pointed out earlier, the same dynamic played out at the state level. Our General Assembly has been a font of aggressively anti-immigrant legislation in recent years, but it was absolutely silent on the issue back when the housing boom was underway and politically powerful developers needed access to cheap labor.

As a result of that conspiracy of silence, those 11 million people are here now -- some 400,000 in Georgia alone -- and in most cases they've been here for 10, 20 or 30 years. They've raised their kids here, made their lives here, and they're not going back to Mexico, Honduras or other home countries voluntarily. And as Kasich and Bush acknowledged, we lack the resources, political will and basic inhumanity required to do it by force.

So if the economic concern expressed by Cruz and others is sincere, the best way to address it would be to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadow economy and into the sunlight. Make them and their employers pay the same taxes that apply to legal American workers pay. Make their employers abide by wage, workplace safety and other rules that apply to legal workers. Give them the legal protection needed to demand and seek higher wages without fear of being deported.

Otherwise, we are stuck with a status quo in which we consign a more or less permanent underclass to work for less, with less protection, in an unofficial economy that undercuts the official workforce, while denying that underclass the hope of betterment that makes better citizens of all of us.

Finally, it would have been interesting to hear Marco Rubio, the one-time sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform, try to address the deportation question at the debate, given that he has claimed to see the errors of his ways. Unfortunately, the question never reached him and he certainly didn't attempt to insert himself into the discussion.

Earlier today, however, in an interview with NPR, Rubio explained his current position more fully:

"If you haven't been here very long, or you're a criminal, you will be deported, Otherwise, you will have to come forward, pass the background check, learn English, pay a fine, because you violated the law, start paying taxes, and you'll get a work permit. And that's all you're going to have for at least a decade."

"After 10 years on the work permit, I personally am open to — after the 10 years have expired — to allowing people to apply for a green card, just through the normal process that anyone else would use."

I suspect Trump and Cruz would condemn that as amnesty. I also suspect that we have found the fulcrum on which the GOP nomination will teeter from here on out.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.