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The Right Thing to Do: Conservatives and Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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By Paul T. Mero

As the The Huffington Post reported today, immigration reform will be at the top of the post-inauguration agenda for Senate Democrats, emboldened by Tuesday's elections. It is also critical for conservative Republicans to stand behind this central American issue.

I am the leader of the most conservative public policy group in Utah, Sutherland Institute. I also helped lead the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.

Why? What is "conservative" about comprehensive immigration reform? Why would a conservative political group risk offending its loyal base of support over such a third-rail issue? More importantly, why should other conservative political organizations, especially other state-based think tanks, pick up the gauntlet and follow our example in pressing for intelligent, comprehensive immigration reform?

The short answer is that it is the right thing to do, and the prudent thing to do--meaning it's the conservative thing to do, if you are an authentic conservative.

There are approximately 100,000 undocumented immigrants living in Utah. Absent a constructive rule of law, they are literally unaccountable to society, leaving them exposed to criminal elements and forcing them to live in the shadows--harming them and their children as well as the broader social and economic interests of everyone.

Illegal immigration exists because legal immigration exists. Quite literally, if immigration were open ("open borders"), there would be no such thing as illegal immigrants. This otherwise obvious point is worth emphasizing: policies defining who can immigrate necessarily define who cannot immigrate. There is no such thing as a human being who is inherently illegal--a point that seems to often get lost in anti-immigration rhetoric. To say "these illegals shouldn't be here" is to objectify fellow human beings as subhuman. For conservatives, this erroneous sentiment is also immoral and un-American.

For everyone choosing which issues to entertain and which to discard, there is that one moment in time, that one "thing," that often determines our choice. For me, that one thing in the immigration debate was the lack of reason in anti-immigrant voices. A huge part of my identity as an authentic conservative is reasonableness, for me a hallmark of conservatism. It digs to the core of what it means to be a human being.

So I asked, What would I do if I were a Mexican citizen, impoverished, with little hope for my future and my family's future? What would I do for my family if I were one step away from freedom and the hope of prosperity? Would I risk crossing the U.S. border without documentation? My alternative, at best, would be to place myself on a list that would leave me waiting for years to process legal documents. But my family is suffering now. Even so, I'm not a law-breaker. Is it criminal to want to feed my family, to provide decent housing for them, to see them safe? No. I realized that it was a law with no rational basis that would label me a criminal.

The mere act of taking one step of ground is not immoral. Nor is it immoral to work and provide for my family. Yet at that point in Utah, the popular opinion was that a lack of legal documentation was more than a mere infraction. It was immoral. And that opinion, I decided, was unreasonable.

As it turned out, that was the easiest decision I had to make. Much harder decisions involved convincing my colleagues at Sutherland, our board of directors, the state legislature, and the people of Utah that looking at this issue differently was the right thing to do. Reluctant to move forward without my colleagues on board, I prepared an internal memo in November 2007; this eventually turned into Sutherland's official position on illegal immigration, Onus or Opportunity: Conservatism and Illegal Immigration.

In that paper I made central arguments: (1) The American conservative tradition supports generous immigration laws and rejects nativism; (2) "enforcement-only" policies are imprudent; (3) authentic conservatives cherish the deepest meanings of a humane rule of law; (4) undocumented immigrants living in Utah are generally more "Utah" in culture and character than the state's existing residents; and (5) these new immigrants represent a wonderful opportunity for conservatives to reclaim and revitalize civil society, not to expand government or create a police state.

Having the best-known conservative group in the state take this stance changed the way many elected officials viewed the issue. As we entered the 2011 legislative session, public opinion in heavily Mormon Utah had shifted dramatically. In ten months, opinion had moved from 65 percent in favor of Arizona's approach to 71 percent in favor of a unique Utah solution. Notwithstanding some passionate voices within Utah's legislature that favored Arizona's enforcement-only approach, the writing was on the wall. An alternative Utah solution was going to pass.

Enforcement-only policies drive immigrants underground, where they're not only susceptible to hardened criminal elements but also powerless in improving their neighborhoods and partnering with schools in the educational lives of their children. In other words, enforcement-only policies are imprudent.

The Utah Solution, HB 116--establishing a guest worker program allowing undocumented workers and their immediate family members to live and work within Utah-- is set to take effect in July 2013. It has become the envy of many other states looking to do the right thing, the prudent thing, in state-based immigration reform. For conservative organizations and other state-based think tanks like Sutherland Institute, this issue is ripe for leadership and sanity and prudence. Immigration reform certainly involves economic aspects but, more so, it gives its advocates the incomparable experience of doing the right thing.

Paul T. Mero is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Salt Lake City.

This column is excerpted from "What is Conservative About Comprehensive Immigration Reform?" by Paul T. Mero in the Carnegie Reporter, Winter 2012 issue.