WASHINGTON The tone of the immigration debate has recently taken a sharp downward turn, which may not be a bad thing for immigration reform's legislative prospects.
Rep. Steve King's description of the children of undocumented workers as having "calves the size of cantaloupes" from hauling bails of marijuana across the desert brought a cascade of Republican rebuke. "There's no place in this debate for hateful or ignorant comments from elected officials," said Speaker John Boehner. King seemed confused by the criticism. Were people offended by "my choice of the fruit?" This is the GOP challenge in miniature: How to appeal to an increasingly diverse nation when the behavior of a small but vocal portion of its coalition is both offensive and clueless.
Boehner's response was not only tough - just the kind of rapid response Sister Souljah-ing Republicans need more of - but politically sophisticated. To express his displeasure with King, the speaker held a meeting with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of Latino evangelicals. Support from this demographic group, now about one-third of all American Hispanics, was essential to President George W. Bush's re-election victory in 2004 (he won more than 60 percent). Sympathy among these voters is a fair test of future GOP prospects among Hispanics. If Republicans can't appeal to born again, Bible-believing Christians who happen to be Latino, it means the party is defined by its whiteness.
This may not be a serious political problem in Iowa's 4th Congressional District, represented by King, which is about 93 percent white and less than 6 percent Hispanic. It would be a major problem for a national party that must perform in places such as Florida, Nevada or Colorado, particularly in presidential elections. This is the main GOP political divide on immigration reform: between those focused on the electoral dynamics of their own district or state (and sometimes fearful of primary challenges from within the conservative portion of those electorates) and those focused on the national prospects of their party.
The political tide flows naturally in the direction of parochialism. A primary challenge is a more tangible and immediate threat than a possible future loss of the White House. And Republican members of the House will be taking careful measure of public opinion on immigration reform during the August congressional recess. Is opposition building or fizzling?
But King's comments make a fizzle marginally more likely. The congressman has confronted Republicans with a question in its starkest form: Is this a party that trades in stereotypes to feed public resentment of outsiders? Boehner gave a strong, moral response to that approach, calling it hateful and ignorant. The speaker set some firm boundaries on acceptable discourse within the party.
Not all objections to immigration reform, of course, are of the King variety. Many Republicans would be open to comprehensive reform with sufficient assurances that the problems of our current system won't recur 10 or 20 years down the road. Their concerns can be addressed in the legislative process with strong enforcement and border control measures (unless their distrust of government has moved beyond the possibility of reassurance).
Other critics of reform argue that future immigration will undermine the wages of native workers. But the major academic studies on this issue indicate that the results are both mixed and marginal. The long-term impact of immigration on native wages seems to be slightly positive for those with a high school education or some college, and slightly negative for those who don't graduate from high school and those who graduate from college. But all these effects are overwhelmed by other economic trends, such as technological innovation and globalized labor markets.
King has effectively forced the real issue. Republicans will either view immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, as threats to the nation or as potential advantages to the nation. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development recently put the matter in historical context: "In 1900 this country was a fourth of the size it is today. A little over half of that increase came from immigration, and what happens to unemployment rates? Nothing at all. Actually zero effect. ... All of that immigration led to a massively more prosperous economy."
For the GOP, this is not just a matter of economics but of political philosophy. Only a party that generally regards human beings as sources of ambition, enterprise and future wealth will be a source of inspiration to the whole country.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.