Straight out of red-state Texas and a free-market mentality, restaurateur Brad Bailey is trying to get Republicans to endorse a radical idea: Let businesses hire foreigners, even ones here illegally, if they can’t find American workers. His target is the Republican National Convention, where he is hoping to win over the most conservative of conservatives to an immigration plan that Bailey says makes sense for businesses and, ultimately, for the GOP.
Much to the surprise of many politicians, the idea won the support of the Texas Republican Party at the state convention in June. It probably helped matters that the plan also accommodated two top priorities for immigration hard-liners: anticounterfeit Social Security cards and an end to automatic citizenship for all children born to immigrants on U.S. soil. The proposal also includes the obligatory nod to border security, complete with explanation point: “The U.S. border must be secured immediately!”
Now Bailey is traversing the country attempting to secure support among Republican opinion leaders who will convene in Tampa, Fla., next month to nominate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president. The Texan is well aware that he faces major political hurdles at a time when Republican candidates endure a public skewering for a mere whisper that undocumented immigrants should be given legal status. The mission statement of his nonprofit group, The Hard Work Clean Hands Initiative, states as one of its goals, “To sensitize conservatives about the rhetoric on immigration.”
“Privately, elected officials will tell you, ‘Hey, we understand the problem. Deporting 11 million people is impossible.’ But when they come out publicly,” Bailey said, “they are retaliated against.”
The immigration plan Bailey is hawking, dubbed “The Texas Solution,” does not hint at legal permanent status for anyone. It would give temporary legal status to undocumented workers—those “with prior immigration violations”—if they pay “appropriate fines.” They would also have to waive any rights to public financial assistance.
How the conversation will play out in Tampa is unclear. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a general call for a temporary-worker program end up in the platform. I would also not be surprised if the platform merely stayed silent on it,” said Steven Duffield, who managed the GOP platform in the 2008 presidential election. Speaking about the Texas plan, Duffield observed, “My surprise as a platform guy is that they got that specific.” A platform typically includes general policy themes, not legislative language.
In 2008, the Republican platform committee played it safe, steering clear of any immigration statements that could stir up internal controversy. The 2008 plank on immigration was silent on guest workers and emphasized the “rule of law.” Presidential nominee John McCain was vulnerable on immigration as the former cosponsor, with uber-liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., of legislation calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Romney has more political leeway on the issue. (His obvious weakness is health care, where his words are parsed closely.) Romney already has shown himself to be moderately pro-immigration, calling for an increase in the available H-1B visas for highly skilled workers and saying that foreign math, science, and engineering students studying in the United States should have green cards stapled to their college diplomas. He has been mute, however, about low-skilled foreign workers—the guys whom Bailey is most worried about.
Bailey owns two seafood restaurants in the Pasadena area outside of Houston. His staff is mostly Hispanic, and they are shocked that he is a Republican. “They say, ‘Brad, how can you support Republicans when they hate Hispanics?’ ” he said. Bailey carried that sentiment with him to the Texas GOP convention, where he was on the committee charged with drafting an immigration plank. The panel included business owners who, like Bailey, wanted to make sure they could hire staff legally, be they foreigners or Americans. But it also included people who patrolled the Southwest border as Minutemen, a hodgepodge of self-appointed citizen enforcers.
“They visibly and physically disliked each other when they came in. You could feel the tension in the room,” Bailey said. But they realized that as representatives of a border state, they had a unique view of the immigration problem and needed to come up with a plausible solution. Even the Minutemen understood that foreigners have few legal options for working in the United States. Eventually the group agreed that a temporary-worker program should be part of the Texas GOP platform as long as American jobs were protected. The plan withstood several challenges on the convention floor. Bailey said that the reaction he has gotten outside of Texas from hard-core Republicans generally goes like this: “You passed this in Texas! How?”
Conservative thinkers agree that the GOP has softened on immigration since McCain ran for president, which could mean that a plan like “The Texas Solution” could fly at the national convention. It doesn’t have “amnesty,” but it does offer a plausible path for illegal immigrants.
The Minutemen could provide the best example of how conservative thinking is evolving on immigration. Howie Morgan, a spokesman for the Minuteman Project, said that his group was unaware of the Texas Minutemen’s involvement in the state’s Republican convention, but he also said that many border patrollers act as Minutemen but are not formal members. The Minutemen Project does not support the temporary-worker program, Morgan said, but not for the reasons you would expect from conservatives. Surprisingly, he offered a traditional liberal explanation—temporary-worker programs are not good for workers; permanent visas are better. “The business community wants a cheap labor pool,” Morgan said. “We do not have as many American citizens as we should. We should double the immigration population.”
This article appears in the July 28, 2012, edition of National Journal.