Republican compromises, a century ago and now

See also: Echoes of Ellis Island, Republican Principles,

Immigration Overhaul, Transatlantic Lessons



Internal party compromises between pro- and anti-immigration Republicans are nothing new


Drew Keeling

Draft of 25 October, 2013


Draft only: Please contact the author before using or quoting from


Immigration policies in our “nation of immigrants” have long been marked by ambiguity and irony. How to reap immigration’s diversely distributed benefits, while minimizing its differently distributed costs, has been a periodically contentious issue. Not for the first time, the most crucial political log-rolling challenges now lie within the Republican Party rather than between Republicans and Democrats.


The omnibus “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” passed the U.S. Senate last June, but was put on hold in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives during the recent federal government shutdown standoff. With the government now reopened, at least for a few months, House Republicans have resumed grappling for some kind of log-rolling compromise on immigration.


Democrats and Republicans both agree that current U.S. policy is “broken.” Millions of illegal immigrants now form an integral part of the U.S. economy, and the net benefits they provide could be greater if they were legalized. The last time that was done however, in 1986, it helped catalyze the further waves of illegal entry leading to the current population of illegals. Bipartisan legislation, supported by George W. Bush in 2006-07, would have combined a more qualified amnesty for undocumented immigrants with stricter barriers to illegal entry, but a mostly Republican majority in the House of Representatives opposed it. The rather similar 2013 immigration "overhaul" proposal, supported by Barack Obama, could probably garner a majority in the House, but most Republicans there have not been favorable to it. House Speaker John Boehner announced last summer that the House would not “do the Senate bill.” But might it now work on something at least compatible?


In the early 20th century, U.S. immigration was almost entirely legal and mostly unrestricted, and there were few complaints about the system being “broken.” Immigration policy was nonetheless a heated topic, and the political dynamics were similar in many ways to today.


Both political parties then sought immigrant votes while also seeking support from those wanting to impose would then have been first-ever broad and sizable quantitative restrictions on it. Nevertheless, then as now, the Senate was more in favor of reform than the House, the Republican speaker of the House played a crucial role in stalling immigration reform, and the key circle-squaring challenge was for the Republicans to hammer out a compromise between their party’s pro- and anti-immigration wings.


In 1906-07, the administration of the popular and pragmatic Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, successfully protected the Party’s strong appeal to immigrant voters by means of a mostly pro-immigration bill, while placating Republican restrictionists by a selective tightening of border controls, particularly against arrivals from Asia. At that time there were few U.S. voters of Asian origin, in contrast to the millions of first, second and third generation European immigrant voters in large northeastern and midwestern cities.


There are good reasons to be skeptical about any similar internal Republican compromise today. John Boehner does not have the political capital of a Teddy Roosevelt, and the federal budget problem has been postponed but not resolved.


National politicians in general, and Republican Congress members in particular, nevertheless have a now stronger than ever need to show notable political accomplishments. An immigration bill would be an obvious, though challenging target. Republican strategists are well aware that Mitt Romney’s views on immigration cost them votes amongst the growing Hispanic electorate, compared to what John McCain got in 2008. House members in gerrymandered districts have a different short-term political calculus, but some may also find advantages through internal party compromising and log rolling. Replacing a “path to citizenship” with a “path to legal status,” for example, could give amnestied immigrants the driver’s licenses, health care access, law enforcement protection and education opportunities they desire, while keeping them off the voter rolls (and thus unable to vote for Democrats).


Washingon D.C.’s political gridlock is far from over, but some historical reflection may help declog it. Democrats have recently rediscovered underused advantages in sitting tight regardless of honking horns, and Republicans in the driver's seat of their vehicle may find ways to keep back seat passengers contented, while more actively seeking alternative traffic routes to more clearly defined compromise destinations.


Drew Keeling is a historian and the author of

The Business of Transatlantic Migration between Europe and the United States, 1900-1914