Winning GOP strategy in 2024: Back to business with immigration reform

by Neil Hare

The recent GOP attacks on the business community, including its leading advocacy group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, arguably contributed to a poor showing in the 2022 midterms and is not the answer for success in the presidential and congressional elections in 2024.

The main policy targets for these attacks include business endorsements of Democratic candidates in the midterms, “wokeness” in corporate strategy and support for free trade and immigration reform. Fear mongering on these topics has yielded positive results in rallying some of the GOP base, but most Americans take as much pride in our free enterprise system as they do in democracy and our military, so overall trashing it is a losing message.

One key area for the GOP to flip the script is on meaningful immigration reform. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, is attempting to introduce a bill that would empower the Homeland Security Secretary to unilaterally bar all undocumented migrants from entering the United States if he deems it necessary to reestablish “operational control.” The so-called Border Safety and Security Act of 2023 is opposed by some Republicans who believe it would prevent legitimate asylum seekers, including children whose lives are in danger, from entering the country. In addition to Republicans opposed to the bill, it would be dead upon arrival in the Democrat controlled Senate.

So why should the GOP embrace meaningful immigration reform that would garner bipartisan support and more votes? Perhaps, a bit of history may prove illustrative regarding the last Republican president to win reelection, President George W. Bush. Due in part to the controversy surrounding his election, Bush understood how important the support of the business community was for him to overcome doubts about his legitimacy. And, one of the first issues he wanted to tackle of key importance to American business — immigration reform.

In the summer of 2001, Bush was considering a proposal to grant permanent legal residence status to approximately 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States. To highlight the importance of this issue, Bush’s first state visit was with Mexican President Vincente Fox, where immigration reform was on top of the agenda. On Sept. 7, 2001, Bush hosted Fox at the White House for his first formal state dinner. The dinner concluded with an, unannounced, fireworks display from the Ellipse that startled many D.C. residents, wondering ironically if the capital was under attack. And, four days later it was.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, derailed Bush’s plan for an immigration overhaul, as he led the country into war to avenge the death and destruction heaped upon our country. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created heightened security and border controls, but did not completely quash Bush’s desire for immigration reform. After winning reelection in 2004 (the only Republican to do so since Reagan), Bush again supported a measure to grant 12 million illegal immigrants legal status and to allocate $4.4 billion for more border enforcement. In June of 2007, the Senate failed to pass the bill, as Bush could not rally fellow Republicans who considered “amnesty” a reward for illegal immigration and unacceptable. The following year Democrat Barack Obama was elected president.

Today, immigration reform remains a top priority for the business community. The Dec. 13, 2022, National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) Small Business Optimism Index showed that while 32% of businesses reported that inflation was their biggest problem, 44% also stated that they were unable to fill open positions. The unemployment rate in December was an historic low of 3.5%. While there are many reasons for the current worker shortage, an outdated and ineffective immigration policy is certainly one of them. From small business to the Fortune 500, and sectors from agriculture, construction, health care, retail and restaurants, business supports comprehensive immigration reform.

Republicans can and should still argue for enhanced border security and even earmark funds for building a wall, something the Democrats should accept as long as American companies get the contracts. But maybe instead of a wall we need security checkpoints like we have at airports. Due to the war on terror, we have the technology to document and track all people coming into our country whether by land, air or sea. It is time to figure out how to make those seeking to come and work in our country legal immigrants and not “illegals.” Congress can increase visa caps, create new visa categories and establish a path to legality and citizenship for out of status immigrants. Without the demagoguery, the answers are well within bipartisan reach.

The numerous Republican candidates running for president in 2024 should go back to the successful messaging of being the party of lower taxes, less regulation, free trade and the rule of law. Further, go back to the party that supports American businesses by listening to them and pursuing the policies they need to succeed — like immigration reform that brings more workers into the country. Whether it is large public companies fulfilling a fiduciary duty to shareholders or small businesses supporting their communities, the American business community is about creating jobs, bolstering our economy, and solving problems, and it will support candidates that bring answers and not fear. That message is a recipe for success for either party to embrace.

Neil Hare is the president and CEO of GVC Strategies, a former vice president of communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a long-standing member of the Chamber’s Small Business Council.