Some Context on the Coming GOP Immigration Debate

Could immigration be Rick Perry's Achilles' heel? Folks are beginning to ask. Republican primary voters, The Washington Post tells us, are pestering Republican presidential candidates about it. Ed Kilgore suggests it could be a problem for Perry in South Carolina. So we might be headed for a repeat of the 2008 primaries, where the contest between the candidates to prove themselves the most anti-immigrant grew so frenzied that it led John McCain to come out forcefully against the comprehensive immigration bill sponsored by some guy named John McCain. I think Tom Tancredo may have pledged to personally pistol-whip an immigrant, but my memory on that may be faulty.

As it happens, Perry's history on immigration is rather -- cover the children's ears -- moderate. As Kilgore explains:

He has, after all, consistently supported a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, both positions contemptuously dismissed as code for "amnesty" by many conservative activists. Worse yet, from their point of view, he signed and still defends a state version of the DREAM Act, which provides in-state tuition rates at state universities for illegal immigrants brought to this country as children. He opposes any modification of birthright citizenship. And he kept Texas off the bandwagon of states emulating Arizona's SB 1070 law.

This will get Perry a lot of criticism from his opponents. But when it comes, we would do well to understand the context. First of all, while Republicans will no doubt rail against the Obama administration's failure to secure our borders, the fact is that our borders are more secure than ever. Under Obama, we have more border patrol agents, more border fencing, more border drone aircraft, and more deportations than ever (see here for some details). Furthermore, illegal immigration has declined sharply in the last couple of years, partly because the poor economy means fewer jobs to lure workers, and partly because opportunities in Mexico are improving.

That doesn't mean there aren't Republican voters who still get mad when they hear someone speaking Spanish at the supermarket and want their candidates to mirror their anger. And it doesn't mean that the candidates won't oblige. But most of what Republicans want to happen on illegal immigration has, in fact, been happening.