A Changing GOP Position on Immigration?

It was interesting to see that both Marco Rubio in his official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union and libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul in the Tea Party response argued for a less restrictive immigration policy. This is an important development for a party whose conservative wing has long been known for its support of restrictionism.

Rubio restated his longstanding support for expanding legal immigration and at least some regularization of the status of the illegal immigrants already here. The notable development here is not that he said it, but that it was embodied in the GOP’s official response to the President.

Paul actually went further than Rubio, advocating a much broader pro-immigrant stance:

We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity, therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future.

We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities.

We must be the party that says, “If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.”

Taken literally, this suggests a policy of open borders for anyone who “want[s] to work” and “become an American.” Most likely, Paul did not intend to go that far. But it’s still a pretty strong statement, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address, where he called for an America “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” And unlike both Rubio and President Obama in the State of the Union, Paul did not couple this call for increased immigration with a call for increased border enforcement.

It is significant that this sentiment was included in a speech billed as the official Tea Party response to the State of the Union. Although the Tea Party is often portrayed as a group of extreme social conservatives, it also has a large libertarian wing that includes about half of its supporters. Paul’s speech is an important sign that the libertarian wing of the Tea Party is gaining ground, at least on immigration. I discussed the distribution of Tea Party opinion in more detail in this article.

It is also noteworthy that both Rubio and Paul linked support for immigration with a more general pro-free market and pro-individual freedom stance. I elaborated on that idea in more detail here. Free migration is also an important element of political freedom.

Obviously, the immigration sections of Paul’s and Rubio’s speeches are very general. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the GOP and the Tea Party movement will translate them into policy specifics. Moreover, the Republican Party still clearly contains a large restrictionist wing, some parts of which verge into nativism. They are not simply going to give up as a result of these two speeches.

The speeches also did not address standard conservative objections to immigration, such as the claim that it will lead to massive increases in welfare spending, which I challenged here. Like most political speeches, Rubio’s and Paul’s have little in the way of in-depth reasoning.

Despite these caveats, it is clear that the winds of change are blowing in the GOP on this issue, probably for a combination of both political and principled reasons. Combined with President Obama’s own apparent commitment to immigration reform, which he reiterated in the State of the Union, it’s even possible we will get some change we can believe in.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that Rand Paul’s Senate website is much less pro-immigration. The page devoted to the issue mostly focuses on the supposed need to prevent illegal immigration, while only briefly mentioning his “support [for] legal immigration.” It’s theoretically possible to reconcile the website and the speech by noting that a policy that makes immigration legal for all those who “want to work” and become Americans would largely eliminate the issue of illegal immigration, because the vast majority of potential immigrants could then just get in legally. It’s more likely, however, that the speech represents either a change of position or at least a major change of emphasis. If immigrants really are “assets, not liabilities,” it makes no sense to make a big point of “securing the border” against them, as Paul does on the Senate website.