In his "statement of principles" issued this past Thursday [PDF], Speaker of the House John Boehner claims to have—at last!—put forth a "common-sense" and "bipartisan" approach that will fix our "broken immigration system."
Such clichés have become all-too familiar, and the memo is yet one more variation on a theme, played every couple of years for the past 15.
As other commentators have pointed out, Boehner's "principles" are quite similar to those of the "Gang of Eight," whose bill died in the House in 2013. The difference that jumps out is that Boehner would allow migrants who are in the U.S. illegally to acquire legal status, though not citizenship. (In other words, they would be allowed to stay but not allowed to vote for Democrats.)
Coming after the Gang of Eight's failure, Boehner's memo and resultant bill (if there ever is one) amount to a calculated attempt to negotiate between two centers of power in the Republican Party. The first is a constellation of interests that, for ideological and economic reasons, wants ever more immigration and access to global labor pools. The second is the GOP's overwhelmingly White electoral base, which accounts for some 90 percent of Republican vote totals.
Mass immigration is patently unpopular among White Republicans; more important, immigration (along with "illegals," "amnesty," and related buzzwords) has taken on a profoundly symbolic meaning. Immigration is a kind a proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile.
There are many within nationalism and traditionalism, as well as the "hard Right" of Beltway conservatives, who are convinced that the GOP is acting like "the Stupid Party" in supporting the mass immigration of millions of likely Democrats. Such activists, it seems, want to save the GOP from itself, and prevent an unnecessary political suicide at the behest of clueless "RINOs". (My fear is that Republicans aren't as stupid as they look.)
But the GOP's "grassroots" are, on some level, at fault for continuing to articulate their opposition to immigration using the bugaboo of "amnesty," which effectively makes immigration a matter of legality, national security, and abstract notions of citizenship. (I, for one, would happily grant "amnesty" to a million Russian, German, or Italian "boat people" who might happen to wash up on American shores.)
Immigration and "amnesty" are, as mentioned, non-racist proxies for race and culture. In focusing on these, the base has effectively painted itself into a corner, in which it will have a difficult time opposing a bill that, say, promises border enforcement and increases legal immigration or, qua Boehner's memo, offers penalties and legal status to migrants without citizenship and voting rights.
Putting that aside, a bill based on Boehner's memo (if it ever sees the light of day) would create a "new normal" socially and demographically—and one with many unintended political consequences.
First and foremost, the migrants would remain here, regardless of whether they'd be allowed to vote. Hispanics would thus continue to establish enclaves and quasi-homelands.
Secondly, their children would be citizens. In other words, the political effects would not be immediate but they would be inevitable, some 25 years later when the current crop of Republicans are in retirement and no longer need to build careers by manipulating White voters.
Thirdly, and most provocatively, America would have generated a new "Jim Crow" myth. If Boehner proves successful, imagine the stories we'd read, only a couple of years on, of hard-working "José," who's here legally and whose lifelong dream is to vote or run for office. The American Left (and, likely, much of the Right) would be revitalized by the prospect of advocating for American Hispanics "living under Apartheid," working and paying taxes but not receiving representation.
In the near term, I'll refrain from predicting what will come of Boehner's memo. A year ago, my gut feeling was that the Gang of Eight's bill, introduced shortly after Obama's second inauguration, would prove successful. (I was incorrect.) And since Boehner's memo was released, there has been passionate opposition, even among mainstream conservatives.
Of course, all of this has remained entirely on the level of reaction: conservatives express their distaste and unease, without really articulating a competing vision—even on the most rudimentary level of Who We Are. For better and for worse, a likely scenario is that we will remain in the same limbo we've been in for decades: mass Third World immigration will continue, legally and illegally, and White America will keep putting off a definitive answer on its identity. At a time when it is needed most.