2024 Republican immigration reform back on track

Neil Hare is President and CEO of GVC Strategies, formerly the Vice President of Communications for the American Chamber of Commerce, and a longtime member of the Chamber’s Small Business Council. The views expressed here are his own.

The Republican Party’s recent attacks on the business community, including its main advocacy group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are arguably the cause of poor performance in the 2022 midterm elections, rather than the answer to success in the 2024 presidential and congressional elections.

Key policy targets of these attacks include Democratic candidates’ business endorsements in the midterm elections, the “wake-up” of corporate strategy, and support for free trade and immigration reform. Spreading fear about these topics has had positive results in winning over some of the Republican base, but most Americans are as proud of our free enterprise system as they are of democracy and our military, so overall, Destroying it is a failed message.

A key area for the Republicans to flip the playbook is meaningful immigration reform. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex) is trying to introduce a bill that would authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security to unilaterally ban all undocumented immigrants from entering the United States if he deems it necessary to re-establish “movement controls.” The so-called Border Safety and Security Act of 2023 has been opposed by some Republicans who say it will prevent legitimate asylum seekers, including children whose lives are at risk, from entering the country. With the exception of Republicans who opposed the bill, it was dead by the time it reached the Democratic-controlled Senate.

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So why should the GOP embrace meaningful immigration reform that would command bipartisan support and more votes? Perhaps, a little history can illustrate the point about President George W. Bush, the last Republican president to win re-election. In part because of the controversy surrounding his election, Bush understood how important the support of the business community was to him in overcoming doubts about his legitimacy. And, one of the first issues he wants to address is an issue critical to American business — immigration reform.

In the summer of 2001, Bush was considering a proposal to grant permanent legal residence status to some 3 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally. To underscore the importance of the issue, Bush’s first state visit was with Mexican President Vincent Fox, where immigration reform was high on the agenda. On September 7, 2001, Bush hosted Fox at the White House, his first official state dinner. The dinner ended with a surprise fireworks display at the Ellipse, which surprised many D.C. residents, ironically wondering if the capital was under attack. And, four days later.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 derailed Bush’s immigration reform program as he led the country into war in retaliation for the death and destruction our country suffered. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have boosted security and border controls, but haven’t quite quelled Bush’s desire for immigration reform. After winning re-election in 2004 (the only Republican to do so since Reagan), Bush again backed a measure to grant legal status to 12 million illegal immigrants and allocate $4.4 billion to strengthen border enforcement. In June 2007, the Senate failed to pass the bill because Bush could not unite with fellow Republicans who believed that “amnesty” was an unacceptable reward for illegal immigration. The following year, Democrat Barack Obama was elected president.

Today, immigration reform remains a top priority for the business community. The December 13, 2022 National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Optimism Index showed that while 32% of businesses reported inflation as their biggest concern, 44% also said they were unable to fill open positions. The unemployment rate hit a record low of 3.5% in December. While there are many reasons for the current labor shortage, outdated and ineffective immigration policies are certainly one of them. Businesses from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, as well as industries such as agriculture, construction, health care, retail and restaurants, support comprehensive immigration reform.

Republicans can and still should advocate for increased border security and even earmarking money for a wall, and Democrats should accept that as long as American companies get contracts. But maybe we need security checkpoints like airports instead of walls. Thanks to the war on terror, we have the technology to record and track everyone who enters our country by land, air or sea. Now is the time to figure out how to get people who want to come and work in our country to be legal immigrants instead of “illegal immigrants.” Congress could raise visa caps, create new visa categories, and create pathways to legality and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Without incitement, both parties can find answers.

The many Republican candidates running for president in 2024 should return to their successful message of being the party of low taxes, less regulation, free trade and the rule of law. Also, go back to the parties that support corporate America, listen to them and push through the policies they need to succeed — like immigration reform that brings more workers into the United States. Whether it’s a large public company fulfilling its fiduciary duty to shareholders, or a small business supporting its communities, American business is committed to creating jobs, boosting our economy, and solving problems, and will support candidates who bring answers, not fear . The message is a recipe for success that can be embraced by either party.

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