Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Immigration reform looks like last gasp for the GOP

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SOME of the first English words Mario Rubio learned were "I am looking for work." A penniless Cuban immigrant, he asked a friend to write them out phonetically on a piece of paper so he could memorize them.

He worked hard and eventually became an American citizen. Perhaps his greatest reward was that his children had a better start in life. His son, Marco, is now a Republican senator representing Florida.

His family's story helps illustrate why the immigration reform the senator backs would increase the sum of human happiness by freeing more people to pursue it. Like the sea between Cuba and Miami, however, the route to reform is rough.

On June 27, by a convincing 68 votes to 32, the Senate passed an immigration bill co-sponsored by Rubio. Now the action moves to the House of Representatives, where its passage is far from certain.

The Senate bill passed with support from both parties. All the Democrats voted for it, as did nearly a third of Republicans. House members would probably pass something similar if allowed, but Rep. John Boehner (R.-Ohio), the Speaker of the House, says he will not allow a vote on any bill unless a "majority of the majority" -- i.e., a majority of House Republicans -- approve it. That is a steep hurdle.

The Senate bill, were it to become law, would go a long way toward fixing America's broken immigration system. It would increase the number of visas for skilled workers, grant visas for entrepreneurs and establish a guest-worker program for manual labourers. It would give the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America a chance to come in from the shadows: After paying a fine and back taxes, working hard and staying out of trouble, they eventually would be eligible to apply for citizenship.

In a last-minute deal, the bill also added another $46 billion, up from $8 billion in the original version, to fortify the Mexican border, which already is bristling with fences, armed guards and drones, and to beef up systems for checking that firms do not hire illegal workers.

This "border surge" managed to lure in wavering Republican senators, but it is not enough for House Republicans.

Many of them insist on a bill that "secures the border first." That is, they do not want any of the illegal immigrants now in America to be granted legal status until the border is so militarized the flow of new ones slows almost to nothing.

This would cost a fortune -- America already spends more on border security than on all the main federal criminal law-enforcement agencies combined -- and it would make only a marginal difference. So long as the supply of legal foreign workers falls far short of demand for their services, people will find a way in. It would be far better, for the immigrants themselves and for America, if they were allowed in legally.

More highly skilled immigrants would make America more innovative. More foreign entrepreneurs would create jobs for the native-born.

More young, energetic newcomers would slow the rate at which America is aging.

More immigrants would mean more connections with fast-growing places such as China and India, connections that would accelerate trade and the exchange of ideas.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate bill would raise GDP, reduce the budget deficit and slightly increase the wages of the native-born. Countries built on immigration tend to be rich and dynamic: Think of Australia, Canada and Singapore.

Passing immigration reform also would be good for the Republican party.

Granted, it does not seem that way to some House Republicans, many of whom represent districts gerrymandered to be whiter than a starlet's teeth. For such congressmen, the biggest worry is a primary challenge from a more conservative fellow Republican. Many will doubtless hear, at barbecues this summer, that voters want landmines in the Yuma desert and crocodiles in the Rio Grande.

Pandering to such demands will help some Republicans hang onto their seats in 2014. If the Grand Old Party wants to retake the Senate or the White House, however, it cannot afford to alienate ethnic minorities.

They will reject a party that rejects them, and they will one day be a majority. Half of the babies born in America today are non-white. By 2060, non-Hispanic whites will be only 43 per cent of the population, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts.

Long before then, though, a party that attracts barely a quarter of the Hispanic and Asian vote, as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did in 2012, will be incapable of winning national elections.

Rubio, who would like to be president one day, understands this.

If his party does not, it will be swept aside not by Democrats, but by demography.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2013 A7

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