Think tanks neglect immigration

As the Senate finally begins its debate on immigration, it seems like a propitious time to examine the role that conservative think tanks have played in shaping the reforms that may emerge from congressional deliberations.

As the Senate finally begins its debate on immigration, it seems like a propitious time to examine the role that conservative think tanks have played in shaping the reforms that may emerge from congressional deliberations.

While a few citadels of research have weighed in on the issue with zeal — notably the Heritage Foundation — most others have not been active in helping Congress shape definitive policy options. While diverse issues from healthcare and tax cuts to Iraq and energy policy seem routinely to inspire detailed policy analyses and proposals from the think-tankers, the looming immigration crisis appears to have stimulated more punditry than genuine policy options.

To get a handle on how conservative think tanks are approaching immigration, on Monday I visited the websites of 20 top research organizations. I was looking for several things.

First, does the organization offer members of Congress any well-researched policy options? Are up-to-date white papers being proffered? Second, I wanted to see if the site conveys any sense of organizational urgency or priority for this issue.

Few organizations meet this second criterion. Typically, I had to use a site’s search feature to unearth any documents about immigration. Nothing was evident on most home pages to suggest that these institutions are parties to a great debate.

But there were exceptions. The American Enterprise Institute home page announced a panel discussion titled “Tear Down This Wall? Fixing a Broken Immigration System.” A search for more turned up nothing significant. AEI’s two-hour conference strikes me as too little, too late.

Another teasing site was the Manhattan Institute’s. Its home page advertises that “Manhattan Institute senior fellow Tamar Jacoby is available for expert commentary and analysis.” But when I began to dig into the site, about all I could find was a bunch of op-ed pieces written by Jacoby and other Manhattan fellows over the past few years.

Shockingly, some edgy groups are completely out of the game. For example, FreedomWorks doesn’t even include immigration reform on its home-page issue agenda, even on the second-tier list of “Other Issues” that includes less pressing matters like insurance, global warming, privacy and judicial nominations. (After much searching of the FreedomWorks site, I did find a recent essay propounding an interesting private-sector initiative to “break the illegal immigration deadlock.”)

The National Center for Policy Analysis offers almost nothing of substance. Similarly, the Family Research Council contributes little to this week’s top topic. I could turn up only one rather dated policy paper after searching its site thoroughly.

Even respected old-line repositories of conservative thought aren’t staying fresh. The Hoover Institution and the Hudson Institute are nearly ignoring the debate. Hoover’s resources are stale and descriptive when prescriptions are needed. Hudson’s home page trumpets the promisingly titled new essay “What Is Missing in the Immigration Debate.”

Author Herbert I. London suggests that we should make guest workers embrace “Americanization” in recognition of their grant of employment but fails to deliver specific ideas for this missing piece of the puzzle on immigration-reform policy.

Heritage and the Cato Institute are the players of note. Both have much to say about the issue, making clear that they understand immigration is a hot topic.

Of the two leaders, Cato’s ideas are less fresh. Most of its studies and essays are more than a year old, uninformed by current proposals and realities. There’s more punditry than policy, typical of today’s think tanks. The Heritage Foundation offers policymakers useful, up-to-date information and even detailed proposals and reactions to current Senate bills. Congress deserves more Heritage-like contributions.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.