An immigration solution equals salvation for the Republicans

By now, we all know the facts. Among Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the American population, Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the 2012 vote for president, compared to 44 percent won by former President George W. Bush in 2004. Some commentators suggest the GOP is outdated and irrelevant. Others predict the GOP will not win the White House again unless it abandons certain fundamental tenets. Both are wrong.

For reasons of political survival, Romney adopted a hard-line position against undocumented immigrants during the Republican primary. That was unfortunate and unnecessary. President Bush also believed deeply in border security and the rule of law. However, he spoke about the challenges of illegal immigration in a way that recognized we are a nation of immigrants. I believe with the right messenger, message and tone, the GOP will rebound and capture a larger percentage of the Hispanic vote in the future.

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The first significant opportunity for Republicans could come early next year. The president and congressional leaders have indicated they intend to take up immigration reform. Many in the Republican Party, myself included, support comprehensive immigration reform that promotes both our national security and our economy. Some Republicans, however, worry that political leaders will kick the hard issues down the road for the next generation to solve, and that reform will do nothing more than provide amnesty for millions. I believe we can achieve a comprehensive bill that reassures these Republicans and makes sense to Hispanic voters.

First, because there are fewer available jobs in America today, by most accounts the flow of illegal migration has slowed dramatically. So while border security remains a priority, we can afford to move forward with all aspects of immigration reform. We should strengthen security by employing additional border agents, supplemented in a support role by the National Guard and the military. We should take advantage of advanced technology such as drones, night vision detection and motion detectors. A 3,000-mile fence along our southern border is not economical or effective. Instead, we should have limited fencing where appropriate and make use of the natural terrain as a barrier. 

Second, we should impose tougher sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers. However, in order to stimulate hiring, employers should be provided a safe harbor from prosecution if they rely on eVerify technology that confirms an employee is here lawfully. 

Third, our visa process needs revision. A large number of people now here illegally, having entered the country legally under a visa that has expired. We should develop and apply sanctions and inducements to motivate universities and employers to help the government identify and locate visa over-stayers. Additionally, our visa process should better emphasize employment skills. For that reason, we should eliminate programs like the diversity visa lottery, the program that awards visas outside the normal visa rules without regard to family relationships or employment skills.  

Fourth, our immigration policy should promote our economy. The federal government is not capable of deporting the 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants. Even if it could, mass deportations would devastate certain service industries. We should allow those who qualify to stay under an expanded temporary worker program for skilled and unskilled workers based on American economic need. Some who are here and working do not aspire to citizenship. They simply want to work. For those who want more, I have no objection to providing a pathway to citizenship provided they pay a penalty — either in dollars or waiting time — out of fairness to those who followed the law in seeking citizenship. 

Fifth, I believe we have a moral obligation to provide a pathway to legal status to qualified children of undocumented immigrants who are here through no fault of their own. The United States is the only home these children have ever known. Finally, the Immigration and Naturalization Act should be rewritten in plain English so it can be understood by the common man. Currently, the INA is a combination of text and amendments, and is inconsistent within itself. 

Achieving a comprehensive solution will not be easy. The negotiations will be tough and everyone will have to compromise. Prior to the elections, I predicted that whichever political party was viewed by Hispanics as moving the discussion forward on immigration policy would win the hearts and minds of Hispanic voters in 2012 and beyond. Based on what we observed on Nov. 6, I believe this now more than ever. Immigration reform is good policy, and good policy makes good politics. 


Gonzales is the former United States attorney general and served as counsel to former President George W. Bush. He is currently the Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law at Belmont University and counsel at the Nashville law firm of Waller Lansden.