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Opinion: The Wall or the Economy? Time for the GOP to Pick

Electoral certainties that once defined immigration debate for Republicans may be changing

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents serve an employment audit notice at a 7-Eleven convenience store on Jan. 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Chris Carlson/AP file photo)
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents serve an employment audit notice at a 7-Eleven convenience store on Jan. 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Chris Carlson/AP file photo)

If you were on the outside looking in, last month’s Republican primary for Georgia governor seemed to feature state Sen. Michael Williams, an immigration hard-liner, against everyone else.

Williams made national headlines when he kicked off his “Deportation Bus Tour,” promising to drive around Georgia, “fill this bus with illegals and send them back to where they came from.” But while Williams got a ton of press from his infamous deportation bus, he got almost no Republican votes. In the end, he finished second to last in the primary with 4.9 percent.

In the Republican Senate primary in West Virginia, former coal executive Don Blankenship called himself “Trumpier than Trump” and made headlines when he repeatedly talked about Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her family as “China people” and accused her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, of enriching himself through his “China family.” Like Williams in Georgia, Blankenship’s far-far-far right candidacy fell flat. He finished in third place in the primary with 20 percent.

Too outrageous?

Both Williams and Blankenship seemed like two more reminders to Republicans in Washington that, awaiting them in their primaries at home, there would be no idea too outrageous and no bridge too far to the right when it comes to talking tough on immigration. But in both cases, the loudest and most outrageous got the most attention, but they didn’t get the votes. Other candidates in Georgia and West Virginia were not exactly reformers themselves, but there was no payoff in the end for the most audaciously offensive among them.

Likewise in Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’ winning Senate race against Roy Moore in December, there were plenty of dynamics at play in the ultraconservative state, but immigration really wasn’t one of them. In his campaign, Jones opposed Trump’s border wall and said he would support some version of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and he managed to get elected nonetheless.

Fear of losing their seats from a challenge on the right has kept even the talk of a compromise on DACA at bay and made any conversations about comprehensive immigration reform a nonstarter. So it’s worth noting, going into a week when House Republicans will continue to wrestle over whether or how to take up a DACA fix before the midterms, that the electoral certainties that once defined the immigration debate for Republicans may slowly be changing before our eyes.

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The other dynamic that’s changing much faster for Republicans is the economy. After years of a sticky recovery and stalled economic growth, the nation’s unemployment rate is suddenly at an 18-year low of 3.8 percent. That’s great news for job seekers, but incredibly bad news for business owners who have been struggling for the last year to fill lower-wage jobs in their companies since the Trump administration began even tougher immigration enforcement on undocumented workers, while also failing to significantly increase the number of H-2B visas for seasonal workers businesses rely on.

Unintended consequences

In states across the country from red South Carolina to purple Minnesota, the unintended consequence of low unemployment is the need for a plentiful, reliable labor supply to allow the economy to continue to expand. But the lack of workers, especially in red states where agriculture and tourism rely on seasonal immigrant workers, farmers, restaurant owners and others are having to close portions of their operations because they can’t get people to fill their jobs.

In Ohio, Joe Chiera, who owns a landscaping company, told the Akron Beacon Journal that the labor shortage has affected his business so severely that he sent an employee to Puerto Rico to hire 15 people willing and able to fly to Ohio to work for the season. “I’m all fired up about this. No one wants to hear me. No one cares. It is what it is,” Chiera said. “We are having major struggles finding people to work.”

In Hilton Head, South Carolina, restaurant owner Steve Curb told The Washington Post that an island-wide labor shortage, especially for dishwashers, waiters and line cooks, has forced him to close entire portions of his dockside restaurant during the busiest time of year because he can’t serve his customers. “The whole island is a disaster zone right now,” said Carb, president and founder of SERG Restaurant Group. “It’s been a nightmare.”

In Minnesota, where the state’s 3.2 percent unemployment is even lower than the national average, a headline in Twin Cities Business last week (“Labor Shortage is Hurting Minnesota’s Employment Growth”) summed up the looming danger for the entire economy if more workers aren’t produced from somewhere soon — that record-low unemployment will actually cost jobs if businesses can’t expand.

If I were a moderate Republican, seeing those headlines at home about the dire need for more workers to expand local businesses while also seeing the nuttiest immigration hard-liners come in last or close to last in GOP primaries, I’d be looking at my options this week on DACA and the other immigration deals being discussed.

Ultimately, any legislation would have to be signed by President Donald Trump, who will have to decide if he’s more dedicated to keeping the American economy growing and expanding, even with workers who immigrated from another country, or if he’d rather build his big, beautiful wall between the United States and Mexico, even if the economies on both sides of the wall begin to crumble as a result.  

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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