Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Foundation and Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, refer to immigration reform as a “moral imperative” in an editorial in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal. They identify several principles that they believe could form the foundation of a conservative approach to immigration.
They argue that a principled Christian policy should rest on “the rule of law, security and safety, family unity, and human dignity." And they call for policies to keep families together, substantially expand H1-B visas for skilled persons, and provide safe and legal work opportunities for those who enter the United States legally. They reject favorable Republican poll numbers as justification for the G.O.P.’s foot dragging on immigration reform.
Neglect of serious policy issues in the face of an election is not new. A few weeks back, voters opposing the Affordable Care Act elected a Republican to a Florida House seat in a special election against a former gubernatorial candidate with statewide recognition. The winning Republican candidate didn’t need to offer an alternative approach to health insurance to convince voters. On immigration reform, the House leadership’s unwillingness to take up the Senate bill or offer its own version looks increasingly like a political calculation.
Hard as it is to argue against winning, the G.O.P. exposes itself to both ethical and political peril by doing nothing. As the party of limited government and market forces, Republicans risk defining themselves as the party of No—especially six years into resisting an activist Democratic administration. The downside of playing up the market and playing down the government is that it can project an image of society on autopilot, with government’s role reduced to plugging in the right coordinates for the final destination.
Such a vision is apt to induce queasiness for the anonymous citizen in seat 41E. Those at the helm need to be engaged and proactive, whatever their convictions. The moral imperative generated by the needs of democracy itself is to draw citizens into political debate by outlining options, offering alternatives, and encouraging responsible choosing.
Reed and Moore are right to point to probable electoral success in November as an ethically unacceptable reason for deferring action on immigration. Their call for a conservative approach to immigration reform, together with their appeal to a Christian view of human dignity, is welcome, less because it is conservative and more because it promises to engage the debate with specific policy items linked to principles. At the same time, their position remains symptomatic of the ambiguous application of values to public policy initiatives.
These proposals for immigration reform display an imbalance tilted towards burdening the undocumented. Those here illegally would be required to pay fines and back taxes, admit wrongdoing, learn English, submit to background checks, and demonstrate their ability to support themselves, all in the name of human dignity—of the imago dei. But if human dignity is to be invoked in support of these actions, doesn’t it also call for guarantees of permanent residency and security from deportation? Or do the political calculations persist in extracting their pound of flesh?
“The House should pass legislation that reflects conservative values of strong and secure borders, the rule of law, economic opportunity, and strengthening of the family.” This proposal begs a question: Must border security be certified before the other elements are implemented? More specifics would have helped.
While the Reed/Moore proposal raises as many questions as it addresses, its strictly moral appeal for action on immigration is welcome. It is refreshing to hear a call to action simply because it is the right thing to do. No less refreshing would be a decision by House Republicans to act on that imperative whatever political expediency might recommend.
- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.