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President George W. Bush has a message for his party. During a round of media appearances to promote his new collection of portraits of immigrants, Out of Many, One, President Bush said that the Republican Party has become “isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist”. For a former president to rebuke his party in such strong terms should give conservatives cause to listen and think about how the United States is changing.

Hispanic Americans are a diverse demographic group with different attitudes towards their cultural heritage, national identity, religious beliefs, and social views. It is also a rapidly growing demographic group. Over half of the population growth in 2010 to 2019 came from Latino or Hispanic groups. By 2060, Hispanics could make up 32 per cent of people aged under 18. Many Hispanic Americans are patriotic, pro-enterprise and pro-family, making them natural conservative voters. American conservatives simply cannot afford to ignore or marginalise such a dynamic portion of the population.

This argument is not a new one and it inspired the last attempt by Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform following the 2012 election ‘autopsy’. It is now the accepted wisdom that the backlash against the bipartisan 2013 legislative push prepared the ground for President Donald Trump to launch his campaign, promising to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Although there are certainly partisan divides among Hispanic American views on immigration, the majority of Hispanic Republicans still favour helping refugees and providing a path to citizenship alongside improving border security.

Despite four years of racially charged rhetoric and tougher immigration restrictions from President Trump, Republicans increased their support among Hispanic voters in 2020. The Trump campaign carried out intensive engagement with Hispanic communities, but President Trump’s 32 per cent in 2020 still falls well short of President George W. Bush’s 44 per cent in 2004. As much as President Trump successfully spoke to many Hispanic Americans with conservative views on the economy, religion, and law and order, maintaining his immigration stance prevents Republicans from returning to Bush-era levels of support.

In the time since President Bush left office, the policy priorities of the conservative movement have been scrambled by President Trump. This has generated serious debate within the conservative movement around how to address the challenges created by the globalised economy. But as some American conservative thinkers have warned, there are risks with overcorrecting in response to the Trump era. It was President Bush’s success in tapping into the concerns of Hispanic Americans and his moderate immigration policies that helped him to become the only Republican to win the popular vote since the end of the Cold War. 

Republican presidential hopefuls, like Senator Marco Rubio, are now calling for their party to rebrand and become a multi-ethnic working-class party. This means the party needs a strategy to win over more Hispanic American voters, rather than embracing the worst excesses of the Trump era, and there can be no successful strategy so long as the immigration system remains broken. Taking a balanced approach towards immigration reform will help the Republican Party to earn trust and long-lasting support among Hispanic Americans. 

That is why it is worth considering how President Bush’s ‘principles for reform’ could help shape conservative immigration policy. As many have already noted, these principles are broadly a restatement of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals that President Bush tried to pass through Congress in 2006 and again in 2007. Much has happened since that time, but the immigration system still needs reform. Rather than embracing the worst excesses of the Trump era, American conservatives can draw on President Bush’s policy intervention to think about how to deliver an immigration system that secures the border but is compatible with the nation’s values.

For starters, what should be a no-brainer for Republicans is to grant legal status for Dreamers. This enjoys widespread popular support, including from the majority of Republican voters, and is the right thing to do for millions of people who have only ever known America as their home and have become productive members of society. Even President Trump came close to helping Dreamers in return for border wall funding in 2018 before ultimately backing off. Passing legislation to finally fix this issue would send a clear message to Hispanic Americans that Republicans are willing and able to help immigrants.

President Bush’s support for a pathway to citizenship for all illegal immigrants is a harder sell for many conservatives. Understandably, conservatives do not want to make concessions without a firm guarantee of effective enforcement, avoiding what happened after the 1986 amnesty. There is a range of border and interior measures that conservatives can support, including mandatory E-Verify which was trialled during President Bush’s second term. Addressing these enforcement concerns is key to unlocking conservative support for reform, but it cannot be an excuse for inaction.

To make the immigration system work better for the economy, President Bush has pushed the case for moving the focus from family connections to skills. This means putting in place reforms that generate greater economic value and minimise the costs. High levels of low skilled labour have already reduced wages for working-class Americans. Reihan Salam, a prominent American conservative thinker, tackled this issue head-on in his book Melting Pot or Civil War, making the case for an immigration policy that prioritises high skills through a points-based system that measures people’s education, skills, and work experience.

Other anglosphere countries such as Australia, Canada, and the UK have already moved towards a points-based immigration system, often under centre-right governments, prioritising high skilled labour. By having a system that clearly maximises the economic value of legal immigration, people would become less anxious about the issue. For example, the UK ended the free movement of labour with the European Union this year, making all foreign workers subject to a points-based immigration system. In the years since the EU referendum, immigration’s importance as a political issue has significantly declined.

Above it is President Bush’s call for civility and empathy in the immigration debate that should resonate most. The problems with the US-Mexico border are not the fault of the people who come to America in the hope of finding better opportunities. Immigration is an essential part of America’s national story and identity. This is a truth that needs to be honoured so immigration reform can be secured without alienating people who have worked hard and followed the rules to make a life for themselves and their families in America.

This means following President Bush’s call to fulfil America’s responsibilities on the world stage. Engaging with neighbours in Central America to fight organised crime, provide humanitarian aid, and target corrupt regimes with sanctions remains a part of the solution. These waves of migration will not stop until greater stability and prosperity comes to the region. But raising the cap on refugee numbers is not feasible until the asylum system is brought under control. Some useful inspiration for achieving this can be found in the 1990s experience.

The Republican Party has no future as a vehicle for white grievance. Support for such a party will inevitably diminish, rendering it irrelevant and rightly so. American conservatives can avoid this fate by working towards balanced immigration policies that can command the support of the majority of Hispanic Americans. It is time to look again at the 43rd President if American conservatives really want to build a multi-ethnic working-class movement.

David Cowan is a Conservative Party member and a graduate of the University of Cambridge. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: LBJ Library]