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Republicans and Immigration

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In May 1990, I left the U.S. Department of Education where I was Deputy Undersecretary to join the White House staff of President George H.W. Bush. As Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, I worked on a broad portfolio of issues including K-12 education policy, regulatory and legal reform, plus welfare reform. Immigration reform was not a subject that I was planning to address; it simply wasn't on anybody's White House agenda.

But that changed shortly after I arrived. I began getting calls from Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and some religious-based groups asking if they could meet to discuss the Bush administration's position on immigration reform. Since I had an open-door policy, they were welcome to present their views.

Pending before Congress was legislation to increase significantly the number of family-based and skill-based visas. The Bush administration was officially on record as opposing this legislation, but the reasons for doing so struck me as wrong -- both substantively and politically. The various groups also could not understand our opposition.

Why would President Bush be opposed to helping reunite estranged immigrant families? Weren't we an administration that promoted family values? Why would President Bush be opposed to welcoming to America highly skilled immigrants who tended to have an entrepreneurial drive, started businesses, and hired more citizens? Moreover, Asians and Hispanics were growing demographically throughout the country. Why would Republicans want to alienate them needlessly, especially when so many of the values they embraced -- hard work, strong families, religious devotion, and an entrepreneurial spirit -- comported well with core Republican values? The more I listened to the groups, the more I believed that our opposition was wrong.

Working with a young White House Fellow assigned to our Office of Policy Development, Rob Chess (later the first CEO of Nektar Therapeutics), I set about to discover the source of the opposition. It turned out that the Office of Management and Budget plus the Department of Justice were the principal opponents for reasons that were misguided or politically inept.

The reasons for opposing the legislation were a fear that more immigrants would drive up welfare and entitlement costs should the new entrants not get jobs, require public support or need expensive health care when they lacked insurance. Of course, this argument ignored the significant positive impact of reuniting families, most of whom took care of their own before seeking government assistance. The Department of Justice also feared opening the door to the larger issue of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. And, finally, with regard to skill-based visas in the early years of what became a high-tech boom, I never could understand the opposition -- especially when we had so many foreign students getting degrees from American colleges and universities and who, if they remained here, would become productive, tax-paying citizens contributing to future economic growth.

Over several months, Chess and I maneuvered inside the administration and beat back the internal opposition -- but our ultimate goal was to reposition the Bush administration 180 degrees so that it also enthusiastically endorsed the pending legislation. We succeeded for two reasons. First, the outside groups worked with us to help present the benefits of higher skill-based and family-based visas. In this case, the tangible, positive results significantly outweighed the costs. And second, no one in the West Wing was paying attention. We ultimately succeeded in getting both OMB and Justice to withdraw their opposition. The Bush administration then reversed course and endorsed the legislation -- which ultimately passed Congress and was signed by President Bush.

Inside the Bush White House, a group of us had created a Friday breakfast gathering that met regularly in the West Wing's Ward Room to hear from "outsiders" who had ideas that might help shape our policy development. I remember discussions with then Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, Irving Kristol, and Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews, among many others. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, was not especially wild about this group because we would occasionally invite speakers who criticized the administration or who had ideas that might not be sanctioned by official policy (especially if the speaker endorsed "economic empowerment" ideas which were anathema to Sununu and OMB Director Richard Darman). Occasionally we would hear some back-channel grumbling about our Friday breakfasts, but no one tried to stop us from meeting.

So on the occasion of John Sununu's last week as chief of staff, we decided to invite him to be our Friday morning guest. To everyone's surprise, Sununu accepted, and I will never forget nearly falling off my chair when he said that one of his proudest moments in the White House was when President Bush signed the immigration-reform law.

That period may have been the high-water mark of Republican outreach to Asian and Hispanic communities. Since then, starting with legislation in the 1990s in California under then-Gov. Pete Wilson, the Republican Party has increasingly become characterized as anti-immigration, a fact for which it paid dearly in the recent election.

From a demographic -- and political -- perspective, the current approach of the Republican Party borders on suicidal. It's just stupid politics. But it is more than that: It is also wrong on the merits.

As Republican patriarch Ronald Reagan showed us, America has always been about openness, about welcoming citizens from around the world to our shores to help build that "shining city on a hill" of which he spoke so often and which he deeply believed inspired millions of people.

Reagan succeeded through a sunny optimism that was cheerful and inclusive, not a cribbed and mean-spirited negativism that stigmatized those trying to live better lives. Ronald Reagan did not want to build fences; he was all about tearing down walls.

Republicans now have an opportunity to rethink how they are perceived by our immigrant population and how they will relate to the needs and aspirations of all Americans. American political leaders have always been at their best when they challenge us to seek our better natures which, typically, means including rather than excluding people.

Charles Kolb is president of the New York-based French-American Foundation-United States. From 1997 until 2012, he was president of the Committee for Economic Development, and he served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the George H.W. Bush White House (1990-1992). The views in this article are solely the author's.