Jeb!: Immigration spat between Rubio, Cruz "typical of two Senators"

The executive experience argument for 2016 may only be mostly dead — and Jeb Bush hopes to be the bellows that gets a few last breaths out of it. In a clip from Face the Nation released yesterday by CBS, Bush mocks the feud between Ted Cruz as “typical of two Senators,” which prompts John Dickerson to retort, “Says the grandson of a Senator!” Surprised by that point, Bush replies, “Well, they got things done back then.” It doesn’t get much better from there:

“They were literally arguing about something that didn’t happen and making a big point about it,” bush continued. “I mean, come on man…what we need to do is have a president that has a plan that fixes this mess, controls the border, lays out a strategy, gets approval from Congress, goes about the business of fixing the illegal immigration system and also fixing the legal system.”

Bush said he’s laid out his own plan – and he claimed he’s the only one in the field who’s shown any consistency on the issue. “I bet you – I think this is accurate – I’m the only candidate that has had the same plan for the last 4 years. Everybody else is either in the witness protection program or have changed their views mirroring the anger that might exist in front of them.”

He also offered some specifics on his proposal.

“My plan for illegal immigration has been and continues to be a path to legal status where you earn it. You pay a tax you pay a fine, you pay taxes. You work, you don’t receive federal government assistance. You learn English. You don’t commit crimes, and over an extended period of time you earn legal status. I think a great majority of Americans are comfortable with that practical approach.”

That’s almost a word-for-word recitation of Bush’s plan from his website, although it’s listed as “Border Security” rather than “Immigration” on his issues page. And he’s also largely correct in that he has been consistent in his approach. The problem is that his immigration stance is just like everyone else’s in the race — mostly slogans, without any sense of what follows after the talking points.

That may be a function of this cycle, in which voter anger and frustration has gotten served ahead of coherent policy and track records — in both parties, really. How else can one explain Bernie Sanders as a serious presidential candidate? The problem is that none of these immigration stances can realistically solve the problems as presented by these candidates, including Bush, who’s also posturing every bit as much as Cruz, Trump, and perhaps Rubio as well. In my column for The Week, I argue that these are all immigration-policy dead ends:

Let’s start with Cruz’s position. Denying a path to legal status would eliminate the incentives that would drive illegal immigrants to self-identify, which would allow the U.S. to run background checks and reduce the scope of national-security efforts to find potential troublemakers. In fact, that position gains nothing, and looks more like Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” position that got roundly rejected in 2012. It would leave millions in a black-market status, perpetuating an underclass that would increase the issues immigration reform would seek to reduce, especially crime and security. In that sense, Trump’s statements are more internally coherent than Cruz’s — and perhaps as pragmatic.

What about legalization without naturalization? That does create incentives to come out of the shadows, and proposals to deny broad classes of the population an option for naturalization do have some precedent. However, this also cuts across conservative demands for assimilation over obsessive multiculturalism, which is important both culturally and politically. Legalization without an eventual path to citizenship would provide a powerful disincentive to assimilation. In the long run, it would also be almost impossible to sustain politically, especially as that population becomes much more mainstream.

Also missing from this discussion is the foreign-policy aspects for immigration, especially over the long term. Thanks to the sharp increase in focus on ISIS in the GOP primaries, we have had some debate on how best to incentivize Middle East regimes to deal with the problem. However, we have had no discussion at all on how prospective presidents would do the same with Mexico and Central American nations to reduce the flow of economic refugees into the U.S. How do we put pressure on these nations to reform their economies, their governments, and their use of capital to create environments where their people have reasons to stay put? The only mention at all in this direction has come from Trump and his insistence that he’ll get Mexico to pay for our border wall.

The lack of substantive discussion on immigration highlights the fact that there are no easy answers, no simplistic solutions. People of integrity and principle on all sides have legitimate reasons for their positions, be it an adherence to the rule of law or the need to welcome the poor and downtrodden. Voters are not angry because those positions have not been amply represented; they’re angry because few are looking for pragmatic and systemic solutions rather than talking points and slogans, and that Washington has had more than a decade and is still no closer to a solution.

Admittedly, simplistic sells, especially in this cycle. But it’s also the reason why we haven’t solved the problem for more than a decade after the 9/11 Commission report made it clear that our national security rested on it. This isn’t a silly spat between two Senators; it’s an unserious discussion all the way around.