Libertarianism, the Republican Party, and Immigration Reform

by Jacob Wolf


In the world of immigration policy, much has changed since the November 2012 election. The prevailing interpretations of the election data have resulted in immigration being placed on the table for reform in 2013. The U.S. Senate's Gang of 8 has now rolled out a monumental comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Why is this? How did we get here? The conventional narrative is thus:

  1. Republicans were defeated in the November 2012 election, largely because of their inability to obtain a sufficient number of votes from the fastest growing part of the electorate, the Latinos (who constituted 10% of the vote).
  2. Latinos, rather than voting for the Democrats, voted against the GOP because of their restrictionist immigration policy.
  3. The GOP needs only to reform its stance on immigration, allowing a path to valid status for those in the country illegally, and Latinos will return in some measure to the GOP which better represents the social (and fiscal?) values of the Latino population.

To support this view, commentators cite to George W. Bush's election results with Latinos which were pretty good. They attribute those "pretty good" numbers to Bush's efforts to push immigration reform during his term in office. Whether or not this conventional narrative is true (and at some points, it is not), the GOP has assumed this line of thinking. This logic has manifested itself with immigration being established a primary target for action in 2013, alongside such topics as sequester and gun control. With gun control dead and fiscal/budget battles seemingly subdued, immigration may be the big policy item in Washington D.C. for the rest of 2013.

Unsurprisingly, the conventional wisdom may be lacking nuance. There is another current in play here. I would like to suggest the impact of a group that has been oft-overlooked in the immigration debate: the Libertarians. Though Libertarians constitute a small segment in terms of the entire immigration debate, they are in a unique position to alter the trajectory of immigration reform. This is because the GOP has a growing Libertarian base; that is, Libertarians are increasingly active within the Republican Party.

In approximately six decades, the Libertarian movement in the United States has grown from its origin in a number of isolated, Austrian-school economists into a broad, sweeping political movement. This is most clearly evidenced by Texas Congressman, and Presidential Candidate Ron Paul, who has risen in popularity to heights well-above other notable libertarian figures such as Murray Rothbard, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand. So much so that Ron Paul claimed a plurality of delegate votes in Minnesota, Iowa, Maine, and Louisiana during the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary. This suggests that the Republican base has been increasingly impacted by a Libertarian perspective. How does this play itself out in terms of the current immigration reform debate?

If one glances at the Libertarian cohort, two things are immediately evident:

  1. In terms of ideology, Libertarians are intensely focused on economics and the free-market.
  2. In terms of methodology, Libertarians are centered on activism; they are quite vociferous.

It is in the uniting of these two characteristics that immigration reform stands to be shaped by the influence of the Libertarian cohort. Let me explain:

Libertarians tend to focus on freedom from government interference, excepting certain legitimate uses of government. In terms of immigration, they would suggest that excessive government involvement in immigration is a hindrance and not a benefit. Furthermore, applying laissez-faire economic theory, or free-market principles, they conclude that the free movement of immigrants has an overall net impact on our nation's economy. They argue that immigration, like most things, is better regulated by the free-market rather than by government quotas. Their overwhelming attention to fiscal issues and free-market principles results in a sort of de facto non-restrictionist/open policy for immigration.

This is illustrated by Ron Paul's famous dictum which suggests that a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border would simultaneously function as a barricade to keep illegal immigrants out and U.S. citizens in. His underlying message is that government intrusion in the area of immigration is undesirable because it restrains the operation of the free-market.

To encapsulate the Libertarian perspective on immigration, one could say: immigration is best guided by "the invisible hand" of the market; any law which restricts the free-market flow of immigrants (to or from the United States) is at once unwise and unjust.

Now, let us look at some of the Libertarian arguments for non-restrictionism in greater depth. These points are taken from the CATO Institute, which is the leading Libertarian think-tank on policy issues.

  1. Since [immigrants] are willing to take a chance in a new land, they are self-selected on the basis on motivation, risk taking, work ethic, and other attributes beneficial to a nation.
  2. They tend to come to the United States during their prime working years (the average age is 28), and they contribute to the workforce and make huge net contributions to old-age entitlement programs, primarily Social Security.
  3. Immigrants tend to fill niches in the labor market where demand is highest relative to supply, complementing rather than directly competing with American workers.
  4. Many immigrants arrive with extremely high skill levels, and virtually all, regardless of skill level, bring a strong desire to work.
  5. Their children tend to reach high levels of achievement in American schools and in society at large.

Nota bene the focus on economics and free-market principles. These free-market principles lead Libertarians to a conclusion very much opposite that of the Conservative restrictionist. (As a side note, it might be valuable to inquire as to whether our nation's current family-based immigration system and the Libertarian market-driven immigration system are antithetical concepts.)

Libertarians are ideologically driven, very outspoken, and have considerable sway (perhaps punching above their weight in actual numbers) inside the GOP. Because of this, Libertarians are in a unique position to alter the trajectory of immigration reform. Furthermore, Republicans who hold to limited government principles might indeed be persuaded by their arguments. Thus, both internal and external factors are required to truly understand the GOP's evolving position on immigration.

This would appear to be common sense, but apparently it is not. It is almost comical to me that many political commentators are legitimately shocked when a Republican takes an anti-restrictionist view toward immigration, as if the GOP were a monolithic body of restrictionists. These same pundits contend that the GOP's about-face on immigration is wholly in pragmatic response to political defeat in 2012. However, this narrative assumes singularity in the GOP, which is frightfully reductionist.

The GOP is made up of many groups and even more ideologies. The supposed simplicity and unity of a group like the Tea Party is compounded by the fact that there is a large libertarian influence. Figures like Rand Paul complicate our understanding of the GOP's policy on immigration. Because of the Libertarian influence we are left with a phenomenon in which members of the same group may have opposite opinions on immigration, all based on their leading political philosophy.

Traditionally, political ideologies have been positioned on a left-right continuum. Though this model may be useful in terms of pure ideology, it is obfuscated when one tries to translate ideology into policy. The further right or left you go does not necessitate either restrictionism or anti-restrictionism. Rather than the continuum, perhaps a better paradigm for immigration policy is the Venn Diagram. Groups within the GOP certainly have overlap, but they also have variances - this is especially true in immigration.

In a game of chess, it is easy to focus on the importance of key pieces, such as the King or Queen, and overlook the importance of the other pieces. However, anyone who has played chess can understand that the actions of a single chess-piece can, and many times do, alter the entire trajectory of the game. Similarly, in terms of immigration reform, I think it would be wise not to overlook the Libertarian element in the current immigration debate. They have political sway within the party that has historically resisted immigration reforms, and their limited government arguments in favor of immigration may win converts to the cause of immigration reform. Comments: 1. Taking a page from the Libertarians, it would probably be beneficial to hold high-esteem for employment-based immigration, and to make that the centerpiece of any future immigration reform. 2. Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, points out the fundamental differences in worldview between conservatives and libertarians, especially as it relates to immigration policy:

About The Author

Jacob Wolf is a Case Manager and Policy Researcher at Webber Law Firm, LLC. He blogs at He has been chosen to participate in a Summer Seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies, in June 2013.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.