Skeptical of free trade, spooked by immigration, and hesitant to police the world.
For years, these ideas were active among the American conservative base, but never cogent or articulate enough to bubble up to its leadership.
In the era of President Trump and ever since, however, these ideas are mainstream in the modern Republican Party, a point criticized by a former president turned artist.
“Isolationist, protectionist, and to a certain extent nativist,” said former President George W. Bush last week on the TODAY show of his former party, surrounded by his paintings of immigrants featured in his new book Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.
While we could easily hone in on Bush’s invocation of isolationism and protectionism (the latter of which has been particularly damaging), when it comes to immigration and nativist politics, Bush is on the money. And that is a shame.
The 1850s style Know-Nothing nativism is a recurring theme in American politics, and Trump was only the latest salesman. Especially in economic downturns or exogenous crises, immigrants fill the role of the scapegoat despite the very promising data on their economic and social contributions.
New immigrants to the U.S. have always been fertile ground for conservative political movements: they are more entrepreneurial, more culturally conservative and religious, and are drawn to the American ethos of liberty and justice for all.
In the rest of the Anglosphere, immigrants have been an important building block for successive conservative majorities.
In Canada, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s outreach to new Canadian immigrants in the 2011 campaign attracted more support than the immigrant-friendly Liberals, leading to a decade-long conservative government on our northern border. A key demographic were Asian-Canadians, drawn to the party’s mantra on low taxes and enterprising small businesses.
In the United Kingdom, the world’s oldest political party, the Conservative Party, also attracted significant support among recent immigrants in recent years, many of whom currently lead their own ministries as members of Parliament.
But in both countries, as well as the United States, a souring on immigration thanks to Europe’s refugee crisis, Brexit, and populist rhetoric from the xenophobic right has painted immigration as a dangerous and unwanted phenomenon. That has made it difficult for many naturalized Americans to openly declare support for conservative politics and parties.
On his whirlwind media tour, the “rehabilitated” George W. Bush is right to remind us how we have been scared into an unfavorable view of people coming to America to improve their lives.
“It’s a beautiful country we have, and yet it’s not beautiful when we call people names and scare people about immigration,” said Bush. When you add that to the complexity of our immigration laws, pointed out by scholars such as David Bier, it takes a certain amount of gusto to want to become an American.
That resonates with me because I’ve been there. I immigrated to the U.S. from Canada as a young boy and went through the wringer of the U.S. immigration system. There were lawyers, hostile interviews with bureaucrats, and countless applications and exorbitant fees (yes, even for us Canadians).
Even though I was bilingual, my mother’s heavy French-Canadian accent prompted administrators to place me in ESL education in the first two grades of elementary school. The taunting and teasing were incessant, but I strove above my peers and integrated because I was attracted to the romantic idea of becoming an American.
Regardless of that, I completed my education, went through the Green Card process, paid my many taxes, and eventually cast my ballot as a newly minted U.S. citizen in the 2012 election. I’ve even donated to a political party or two and tried my hand at lobbying for smarter regulations.
Of course, I am what the Trump coalition would label a “good” immigrant, namely that I don’t come from Latin America, I can tick the “Caucasian” box, and speak with a North Carolina twang. My father is a skilled worker who builds race cars, my family was involved in the local community, and we’ve never received a government handout.
But for every family like mine, there are millions of others who are working low-pay jobs, learning English by watching the news and interacting with co-workers, and slowly building up their savings so that they too can formally apply to become Americans.
The fact so many people of different racial backgrounds and linguistic groups have been able to integrate into the American story is precisely the reason that center-right movements should support more positive immigration reform.
Unlike the blood-soaked former principalities of Europe, the United States is built on the ideals of liberty, not the spoils of history and racial lineage. Those who arrive at our shores, whether with papers in hand or not, want to contribute to the American Dream because it promises a society that anyone would be privileged to call their own.
That’s why Bush’s recognition of the dark spiral of rhetoric on immigration matters today.
There exists a system for immigrants who have the means and the time to wrestle through the bureaucracy, but that is all too often lumped in with our process of asylum, granting refuge to those who need it most.
As such, we need to have, as Bush says, a more “robust” process for people seeking asylum, but also an easier path for immigrants to acquire work visas.
If the opaqueness of our immigration system incentivizes millions to overstay their visas (the majority of illegal immigrants) or sneak across the border, then we know that the status quo cannot continue.
The ebbs and flows of migrant caravans may be enough to inflame a short-term outrage cycle on the right, but a more meaningful and successful approach that gives a subsistent policy response would do more to help our country than hurt it.
This is especially true considering that non-native Americans are vastly more entrepreneurial, less likely to commit crimes, and use fewer government benefits than native-born Americans. As such, we need reforms that address both skilled and non-skilled immigrants and can separate that from a humane asylum policy.
That will mean offering eventual status to so-called Dreamers who know no other home, offering more HB1 visas to skilled workers to be paired with companies across the country, reducing the bureaucracy, costs, and wait times for those who apply without criminal records, and some simplified process that allows undocumented migrants to pay fines or back taxes to become legal residents and eventual citizens.
If conservatives want to be true to their principles and believe enough in the American dream, it is time to embrace the Bush message on immigration, and beyond.
Yaël Ossowski (@YaelOss) is a Canadian-American journalist and deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center
Published on Substack.