After ignoring immigration reform in his first term, it’s only a matter of time before President Obama lays out a plan.
House Republicans should beat him to it and lay out their proposal first.
As a model, they should look to their old leader – Newt Gingrich.
While his primary opponents unfairly distorted his proposal for political gain at the time, Gingrich laid out a plan for immigration reform during the 2012 Primaries that presents a real alternative to the false choice between mass deportation and mass amnesty, both of which are wrong and impractical.
The main elements of Gingrich’s plan were full control the border within a year, English as the official language of government, immediate deportation of criminals and gang members, a legal guest worker program to be run by the private sector to avoid fraud, maximum “in-sourcing” of young talent through a 21st century visa program, and a path to earned legality – not citizenship – for some of the millions of people living outside the law.
And Gingrich’s proposed path would look to local citizen boards for judgments on local, human issues as opposed to a federal, top-down, solution.
As author and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley asked in a recent op-ed, “…Since a national solution to immigration cannot be found in Washington, why not try a more local approach? If Franklin Roosevelt could trust local draft boards to produce the men necessary to fight World War II, would it not be possible for local immigration boards, comprising neighborhood officials, to rule with firmness and compassion on cases of illegal immigrants?”
This approach also keeps one important principle in mind – forget a “comprehensive” bill. Each element should be debated and passed on its own merits to slow down the conversation and break the recent bad habit of massive, thousand page-plus bills.
For those of us who worked for Gingrich, we knew cutting through the noise of the media and rival campaigns to explain his proposal would be hard. That was especially true for me on the front lines in South Carolina, the most conservative of the early states, which had just passed a very strict immigration law.
But from conversation to conversation, I found that if communicated clearly, people generally found Gingrich’s approach unique and balanced, and they appreciated his courage to lead on an important issue.
Reacting at the time, conservative author and former Reagan and Bush Cabinet official Bill Bennett wrote, “Gingrich’s plan is strict and nuanced. But more importantly, it could be a sign of a new conservative philosophy… It is not a perfect, comprehensive plan, but it’s a starting point and moves the conversation in the right direction. Conservatives have long been victim to the liberal argument that they would mass deport all illegal immigrants. Gingrich offers a serious alternative that needs to be debated.”
It should also be noted that Gingrich didn’t just put this proposal together in a piecemeal way. For close to a decade prior to launching his presidential bid, Gingrich worked to be inclusive of Latino community leaders, holding countless meetings around the country to gather feedback, tweaking his approach as he listened and learned.
Republican leaders must undertake a similar listening and learning effort, through town hall meetings and Congressional hearings. Rather than a handful of Republicans in a room crafting a plan and then making their sales pitch to the necessary stakeholders, those stakeholders should be in the room from the start.
By allowing Obama the first move, the GOP will again find itself branded the angry opposition, always saying no, and blocking progress on an issue vitally important to America’s fastest-growing minority community.
Instead, Republicans should have faith in their values and ideas, and lead.
If they do it in an inclusive, straightforward way, the American people - including the Latino community – will reward them for it.
Waldeck served as the South Carolina state director and National Coalitions director for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. Previously, he handled coalitions and grassroots campaigns at Gingrich’s issue advocacy group, American Solutions.