The Republican candidate for President of the United States in 2016 made major immigration restriction the broadest and thickest plank in his platform. That candidate went on to defeat 16 other GOP candidates, all of them to a greater or lesser degree pro-immigration. (The difference in degree largely corresponded with the candidate’s honesty, or dishonesty, on the subject.) Now the candidate is sitting in the Oval Office, where he continues to call for the Big Beautiful Wall he demanded along the campaign trail and numerous other restrictive policies (though it is true he has sent mixed signals on these at times).
Yet the moderate wing of the Republican Party continues to fight against those policies in alliance with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Twenty-three Republicans in the House of Representatives (as of this writing) have signed a discharge petition filed by a bipartisan group of congressmen to force a vote on the Uniting and Securing America Act that would shield the 800,000 people currently protected by President Obama’s DACA program, installed by executive order, from deportation, while leaving untouched the system of chain migration that would allow the beneficiaries to bring in many hundreds of thousands (eventually, no doubt, several millions) of near and distant relatives eligible for citizenship. The speaker of the House is supporting the petition, and Senator McCain, from his deathbed, is urging it as well. Conservative congressmen, on the other hand, are pressing alternative legislation sponsored by Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. H.R. 4760 would end chain migration for good, mandate the E-Verify system for all employers, and strengthen security on the border. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, stated recently on FOX and Friends, “We have been in the room, working together, conservatives, moderates, and others [could he mean liberals?] to put an immigration plan together that protects our borders, secures our borders, ends catch-and-release, and deals with the DACA situation.” No mention here of E-Verify, of visa reform, or of chain migration. In other words, save for the mention of DACA (concerning which the President has been less than uncompromising), so far as these Republican “moderates” are concerned the election of 2016 changed precisely nothing. The conservative view seems to be that Ryan, McCarthy, and—in the Senate—Mitch McConnell could have killed the discharge petition anywhere along the way. Why didn’t they do so?
Many recalcitrant Republicans are availing themselves of the easy excuse that if they don’t vote on the immigrants’ side they’ll lose the immigrant vote (and that of the employers of illegal and otherwise exploitable immigrants) in the fall, and with it their districts. Out of office, and replaced by their successful Democratic challengers riding into Washington atop the Big Blue Wave, they’ll be deprived of the patriotic opportunity to defend President Trump against impeachment charges next year, and catastrophe will thus befall the party, the administration, and the nation. That unhappy scenario may be likely, or it may not be. The Wave is looking increasingly less imminent, while Trump’s standing has risen significantly in the polls. Likely or unlikely, however, it ought at this point to be ignored. After decades of political paralysis caused by me-too Republicanism, the time had arrived well before 2016 for the GOP to gird itself to take large political risks. Trump’s candidacy was the first major such, which is one reason (apart from the personal ambitions of his careerist rivals) why the Republican Party as an institution resisted him to the end. Indeed, it never did accept that risk, which was forced upon it willy-nilly by the candidate himself. Yet the gamble paid off stunningly—no more for the insurgency than for the Republican establishment, which owes its control of the House and Senate, as well as the White House, to Trump. Republican incumbents running for reelection this year need to hold that fact firmly in mind while compiling a voting record that reflects personal as well as political courage. Having come so far with Donald Trump, the GOP now faces two choices: double down on the President and risk the possibility of a loss in November, or cut and run from him—and lose all in the long term.
The Republican establishment has been doing its damnedest since January 20, 2017, to block as much of Trump’s agenda as it can. So far, despite Secretary Mnuchin’s best efforts, it has failed to derail the President’s protectionist economic policies. With his immigration initiatives, however, it finds itself on surer ground. Trump’s election did nothing to change the thinking of the American Establishment, conservatives and liberals alike, and he came to the presidency as a political anomaly, not as a party man with a political machine behind him. The GOP has pretended to accommodate his immigration policy until this point—the moment at which it thinks it has more to gain by caving in to the pro-immigration interests than by rewarding the President’s base, which also happens to be the party’s. Should Trump fail finally to get his Wall built, and substantially to reduce immigration, his supporters will be disillusioned and angry, and the victorious Democrats mocking and disdainful—devastating for the President, and for Trumpism generally.