PORTLAND – It’s safe to say that conservative America has still not recovered from the crushing defeat of last fall’s election. As we lick our wounds and look to the bleak prospect of another four years of Barack Obama, more and more conservatives are looking to an unlikely issue to lead us out of this electoral abyss: immigration reform. 

Conservatives have been in a losing argument on immigration for some time. We have spent far too much time worrying about the inherent unfairness of amnesty, and far too little time worrying about the human impact of a failing system.

While we pride ourselves in the respect we have for this nation’s place as a moral beacon for the rest of the world, we have become fixated on a xenophobic fear of cultural dissolution. We have been so tangled up on this issue that we’ve ended up agreeing more with the protectionist perspective of labor unions than with the business community that we’ve traditionally supported.

This has to change. Conservatives will not survive politically if we continue to be perceived as the enemy by a growing demographic.

But there is a monumental opportunity that is emerging now. Not only does a more productive stance on immigration reform offer the chance to quell the demographic divide, but it also offers us the opportunity to solidify our position as the true champions of the American business community.

Consider these statistics:

Recent polls showed that 81 percent of business leaders agree that our current immigration system is backwards — that we make it too easy for people to come here illegally, and too hard for people to come here legally.

Seventy-six percent of those business leaders consider legal immigrant workers important to our nation’s economic success.

And business leaders agreed by a rate of five to one that expanding the number of qualified and skilled legal immigrants makes them more hopeful about the future of our economy.

The business community, like the rest of America, is desperately waiting for common-sense immigration reform. America’s business community isn’t concerned primarily with preventing amnesty; it is concerned with filling jobs and growing the economy.

Conservatives can lead on this issue, but we need to back away from the arguments of the past. We need to embrace the emerging consensus that a balanced approach to immigration reform can work.

If we focus on increasing our border security while providing a sensible path to citizenship for those who are already in this nation, we can stop the madness of our current failed system. Republican pollster Frank Luntz laid out this concept recently in incredibly simple terms: high fences and wide gates.

A group of business leaders and elected officials has started a movement, called the Partnership for a New American Economy, that seeks to establish a foundation for addressing the immigration issue. They have coalesced figures from across the political spectrum, from Rupert Murdoch to Michael Bloomberg, around a core set of six principles:

Secure borders.

Better systems for employment verification.

Increased opportunities for skilled immigration.

Streamlined seasonal immigrant worker programs.

A path to legal status for existing illegal immigrants.

Stronger civic and English-language education programs for immigrants.

These are concepts supported by a vast majority of Americans, particularly business leaders. Conservatives would be wise to take a long look at these principles, and consider a more open-minded approach to the immigration issue than we’ve shown in the past.

It’s encouraging that we’re seeing more and more conservative leaders speaking out on this issue.

From Marco Rubio to Ralph Reed, fiscal and social conservatives alike are beginning to understand that a common-sense approach to immigration is not antithetical to conservative principles.

This issue offers an opportunity for us to engender the faith of both the immigrant community and the business community, while, amazingly, doing the right thing for our nation at the same time.


Lance Dutson is a Republican political strategist and former chief executive officer of The Maine Heritage Policy Center.