If you want to see where the impulse to reform the Republican Party in a more libertarian direction of limited government, social tolerance, and free markets goes to die, look no further than the recent attacks on immigration and freer trade by Jeff Sessions, the influential senator from Alabama. Every time the GOP seems finally ready to orient itself in a forward-looking, post-culture-war direction, some holdover from an America that never quite existed to begin with blows his whistle and the next generation of would-be party leaders fall into line like the obedient von Trapp children in Sound of Music.
Indeed, Scott Walker has explicitly attributed his remarkable flip-flop on immigration to conversations with Sessions. Just a few years ago, the Wisconsin governor and leading Republican presidential candidate used to favor liberal immigration and a path to citizenship for illegals. Now he’s calling for “no amnesty” and universal, invasive, and error-prone E-Verify systems for “every employer...particularly small businesses and farmers and ranchers.”
The three-term, 68-year-old Sessions is “the Senate’s anti-immigration warrior,” according to Politico, and he wants to curb not just illegal and low-skill immigration but also the number of folks chasing the American Dream under H1-B visas, which apply to “workers in short supply” who are sponsored by specific employers with specialized needs.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Sessions complained that “legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States.” Exhibiting the zero-sum, fixed-pie economic thinking that conservatives and Republicans routinely chastise in liberals and Democrats, Sessions continues, “We don’t have enough jobs for our lower-skilled workers now. What sense does it make to bring in millions more?”
His solution is a time out on foreigners, “so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together.” Only “the financial elite (and the political elite who receive their contributions)” could possibly object, argues Sessions in full populist mode. Immigrants keep “wages down and profits up....That is why [elites] have tried to enforce silence in the face of public desire for immigration reductions.”
Sessions brings the same populist and anti-immigrant animus to his critique of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade deal the Obama administration is brokering between the United States and 11 other countries. Sessions, along with progressive Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Martin O’Malley, only see the shadowy machinations of elites at work in the reauthorization of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) or “fast-track” negotiations.
Such rules, which have been standard operating procedure since 1974, allow the executive branch to negotiate terms and then bring the deal to Congress for an up or down vote. Citing “the rapid pace of immigration and globalization,” Sessions wants not “a ‘fast-track’ but a regular track.” He, Warren, and others charge that negotiations under TPA are “secret” and are somehow selling out basic American “sovereignty”—despite the fact that any deal will be voted on by Congress.
Sessions will lose the vote against TPA, just as the Republicans will ultimately lose the battle over restricting immigration. Contra Sessions, there is no clear public desire for reducing immigration, except among Republicans. Fully 84 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with the current generous levels, a super-majority that only shows how out of touch the GOP faithful is with the rest of the country. Earlier this year, Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans are either satisfied with current levels of immigration or want more immigration. Just 39 percent were dissatisfied and want less immigration, which is 11 points lower than the same figure in 2008.
The majority of Americans embrace immigration for a lot of different reasons. Part of it is our history and sense of national identity and part of it is a basic if unarticulated recognition of what economists on the right and left have consistently found: “On average, immigrant workers increase the opportunities and incomes of Americans.”
Leave aside the fact that immigrants are twice as likely to start their own businesses as native-born Americans. The fact is they tend to be either higher- or lower-skilled than the typical worker, so they complement rather than displace natives. And, as the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh documents in his exhaustive rebuttal to Sessions’s Washington Post piece, immigrants not only consume less welfare and commit less crime than the average American, they pay taxes (often without any hope of getting the money back) and stop coming when the economy sours. If you think immigrants cause problems, check out the parts of the country that nobody is moving to and you’ll understand that it’s precisely when migrants stop coming that your real troubles are starting.
Sadly, lived reality holds little appeal for Sessions and Republicans such as Walker, who are instead doing their damnedest to turn the party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush decisively against its long and glorious history of relatively open borders and freer trade. In a remarkable 1980 debate between Reagan and Bush I, the two candidates for the GOP nomination literally outdid themselves not simply in praising legal immigrants but illegal ones:
In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney pulled just 27 percent of the increasingly important Hispanic vote. That was despite the fact that Barack Obama is, in Nowrasteh’s accurate term, “Deporter in Chief” who repatriated more immigrants far more quickly than George W. Bush. Hispanics aren’t stupid—44 percent of them voted for immigrant-friendly Bush in 2004. They knew things could always get worse and probably would for them under Romney.
With 2016 coming into clearer and clearer focus—and with Hillary Clinton doing her own flip-flop on immigration and now embracing newcomers—the GOP and its presidential candidates have a choice to make. They can follow Ronald Reagan’s example and embrace libertarian positions on immigration and free trade. Or they can follow Jeff Sessions’s retrograde populism and see just how few Hispanic votes they can pull.