Don’t Confuse Immigration “Style” with “Substance”

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Some are making a lot of hay over Senator Rubio’s (R-FL) supposed flip-flop on immigration reform whereby he now supports a House strategy of piece-meal bills as opposed to one large comprehensive package that he helped push through the Senate. Rubio has even stated that he opposed going to conference with his Senate immigration reform bill and any individual bill passed by the House.

Rubio’s statement is not a flip-flop—it is a public acceptance of the way immigration reform will work in the House and not a repudiation of immigration reform. For a long time the word “comprehensive” has been a dirty word among Republicans and this is just a loud public statement by a pro-reform Senator—arguably the leader of immigration reform this year—moving against that word and the strategy it represents. Piece meal bills were going to be the strategy in the House—as has been known for months. There is no surprise here.    

But his change is purely strategic, and not very substantive. As a spokesman for Senator Rubio stated:

The point is that at this time, the only approach that has a realistic chance of success is to focus on those aspects of reform on which there is consensus through a series of individual bills … Otherwise, this latest effort to make progress on immigration will meet the same fate as previous efforts: failure.

The positive interpretation is that Rubio so wants some kind of reform to happen that he’s willing scuttle the unpopular parts of his own bill— behavior that reform proponents should see as the lesser of two evils. The negative and unrealistic hope on the part of immigration restrictionists is that they have somehow convinced a pro-reform Republican to give up. They haven’t. The anti-reform side is winning due to luck—Syria, shutdown, calendar problems, etc.—not convincing arguments or political acumen.   

There is too much attachment to, and discussion of, the legislative style of reforming immigration and not enough attention paid to the policy substance. The legislative style of immigration reform is irrelevant. It does not matter if immigration reform is in one bill or a hundred bills—so long as the policy outcome is an improvement and it becomes law constitutionally. What does matter is the substance of how legal immigration will be reformed and how unauthorized immigrants will be legalized. 

Many opponents of immigration reform harp on how long the Senate Gang of 8 immigration reform bill was, comparing it to the disastrous Affordable Care Act (ACA). But the ACA was bad policy and would have remained bad if it was chopped up into several separate bills. The substance of immigration reform is better policy and will remain so regardless of the particular legislative style of its passage.    

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