With immigration once again taking center stage, conservatives must do two things. First of all, we must make clear—through actions as well as words—that we value, respect and welcome immigrants. Secondly, we must lead the discussion. Rather than be reactive naysayers, we must present policy proposals consistent with our principles, including the need to respect the rule of law.
We must lead, not because of political motivations, but rather, because our country needs ideas on how to improve a broken immigration system that incentivizes illegal immigration while de-incentivizing legal immigration.
Previous reforms have failed to reduce illegal immigration because we failed to enforce our immigration laws. Rather, we looked the other way as men, women and children risked their lives in incredibly dangerous circumstances to immigrate to this country illegally. We must take a stand against this dehumanizing and often tragic situation by fashioning a set of policy proposals that encourage legal immigration and make it more appealing to apply for a visa in a consulate office than to hedge your bets with a coyote or hitch a ride across the U.S.-Mexico border in the trunk of a car.
To improve our immigration system, policymakers must change the way they think about immigration. For far too long, conversations on legal immigration have stalled because we begin with the contentious issue of what to do with the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants living in our country.
Areas of agreement
Policymakers would better serve our country by focusing on areas of agreement, rather than issues that are divisive. They should work to adopt a set of proposals that already garner overwhelming support from both political parties. For example, increased funding to secure our border, stiffer penalties for failure to enforce our existing immigration laws, and increasing avenues for legal immigration are all initiatives that would attract support from both sides of the aisle in both chambers of Congress.
With this foundation of agreement, policymakers could then move on to the more challenging dialogue regarding what to do with the 11 million individuals here illegally. A one-size-fits-all solution treating the 11 million individuals as a monolithic group suggests that policymakers think them unworthy of a plan that meets their unique needs.
A sensible and just plan would not be easy, of course, but there is an increased likelihood of cooperation once goodwill is established between those more trustful of the government and skeptics who have seen a failure to enforce existing immigration laws.
A multi-step approach would surely guarantee the best chance for success in a divided government.
And yet, we conservatives should not excuse ourselves from this discussion. If the 2012 presidential election taught us anything, it’s that what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it. On no issue is this more important than when talking about immigration. Carelessness in how we articulate our defense for the rule of law turns away not only the fastest growing demographic, but also a whole swath of Americans who might otherwise be open to our ideas of a limited government and increased freedom.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Hispanics will flock to conservatives, but we could rest easy knowing that we led on an issue of vital importance to the identity, character and creed of our exceptional country.
Here’s hoping we will answer this call to lead.
-Israel Ortega is the editor of Libertad.org, the Spanish language page of The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Human Events.