Despite the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric from some Republicans on the campaign trail, the newly empowered GOP could be walking a tightrope when it actually comes to tackling the issue in the next Congress. The anti-immigration wing of the conservative base will demand that Republicans fulfill their promises to crack down on "birthright citizenship," among other fringe issues. But in the run-up to the 2012 elections, the GOP also risks alienating Latino voters in key swing states if the party leadership adopts the flamethrowing stance of its far-right flank. In the face of such a conundrum, the Republicans' game plan on immigration has begun to take shape: Keep focus on the economy by attacking illegal immigrants for taking away jobs from American citizens.
In an interview with Politico, incoming House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) explained the strategy:
Smith's first two hearings will focus on expanding E-Verify, a voluntary electronic system for checking the immigration status of workers that President Barack Obama supports and scrutinizing the administration's record on worksite enforcement.
"They are what I call 70 percent issues—70 percent or more of the American people support those efforts," Smith said. "I think they are popular across the board, and I think they will be appreciated by all American workers regardless of their ethnicity or background or anything else...The focus is on creating jobs and protecting jobs."
With unemployment rates still stubbornly high, it's probably the most compelling argument the GOP can make to justify a bigger crackdown on illegal immigration. Immigration researchers have shown that, in the long term, expanding immigration raises a nation's economic productivity and average income. But during a recession, there's research indicating that immigration hurts employment rates and income levels for native-born workers in the short term, according to a widely circulated study by economist Giovanni Peri. Defending the long-term benefits of immigration will be a hard sell when average Americans are still struggling to cope with the recession, with an economic turnaround still no sure thing.
That doesn't mean that Republican solutions will necessarily help American citizens get more jobs or improve the economy. In fact, many businesses have resisted the mandatory use of programs like E-Verify, arguing that such requirements are onerous and costly. In a case that's currently before the Supreme Court, the Chamber of Commerce has challenged a Arizona law that revokes licenses from businesses that refuse to use E-Verify to verify the immigration status of its employees. According to Peri, rather than forcing businesses themselves to crack down on illegal immigrants, the government could help native workers by making its legal immigration system more flexible, adjusting visa levels to fit the needs of the economy. But such nuanced solutions might not get much airtime at a time when political leaders can still capitalize on economic fear and uncertainty.