Thus far, the argument over immigration reform in the US has been between the right-wing nativists who would prefer that the newcomers simply go back to where they came from, and the left-leaning multiculturalists who want to ignore violations of immigration law entirely. And neither side seems to be capable of overcoming the other. The first bunch want to build a 20-foot fence, and the second want 21-foot ladders, which means a 22-foot fence, and so on. However, businesses are weighing in now, and they may provide the key to breaking this deadlock.
The commercial interests here are certainly conservative. Small businesses, agribusinesses, the Chamber of Commerce, these are hardly hotbeds of Leninist-inspired unrest. They are the true believers in capitalism and free-markets. And they argue that immigrants are willing to do the dirty, unglamorous jobs that Americans won’t. They are a bit dishonest here; Americans will do those jobs, but not for the pittance being offered. At $500 an hour, people will line up to clean toilets. At minimum wage, well. . .
America, though, has been built on cheap labor brought from outside. It started with African slaves. America’s railroads were built with Chinese laborers. And there have been waves of immigrants since the beginning of the nation. First, the Germans, then the Irish, then the Italians, the East Europeans and now the Latin Americans. Each wave provided laborers willing for work for more than they made at home but at a price that remained a bargain for the commercial enterprises involved. Indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev observed in the final days of the Soviet Union that America built its success on imported human capital.
The Tea Party faction of the GOP is, sadly, composed in part of genuine racists. Some can’t accept that a black man is president, nor do they accept that America is going to be a nation of minorities rather than a white nation with some darker patches here and there. Others who support the Tea Party are not racists but are concerned about the cultural changes that immigration will bring. Salsa replaced ketchup as the country’s most widely used condiment back in the 1990s. One can get customer service in Spanish, and the most widely watched news casts in the nation are done in Spanish — the anglophone media is much more diverse with far more outlets. And white suburban kids listen to hip-hop, play soccer and sometimes date people from another race. These changes bother some.
What the business community can provide to Republican members of Congress is protection in the event of a primary challenge to the incumbent. If a conservative congressman in a conservative district votes for a reasonable immigration bill, the Tea Party will find a challenger to fight for the seat in a primary election, But if the Rotarians and the local and national Chambers of Commerce are prepared to make donations in support of the incumbent, the calculations change. Every politician in America spends a lot of time raising money for the next campaign. Having the support of the people who run businesses is very valuable in that endeavor. It gives them the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly.
The Democrats and the president are prepared to accept just about any kind of immigration bill the GOP House will pass. And many in the Republican Party understand that immigrants will either become citizens or will be the parents of new-born Americans. To act against them for short-term gain is to act against the conservative movement’s long-term prospects.
According to the Hastert Rule (which is really just a principle, not a formal rule of the House), the Speaker should only bring bills to the floor for a vote if those bills have majority support from his caucus. After all, is it really a Republican House if 50 GOP votes join with 190 Democratic votes to pass something? But if 120 House Republicans know their local business community will protect them in the event of a primary challenge, the center can not only hold but flourish. Of course, it will annoy the Tea Party, but they are a minority even in the GOP. And minority rule is not how America is supposed to work.