E.J. Dionne Jr. / Raise the stakes: Tie immigration reform to a hike in the minimum wage

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If you want to alleviate worries about the economic impact of immigration reform, increase the minimum wage. If you want to reassure communities that bear the highest costs from large-scale immigration, revisit a proposal from 2006 by a senator named Hillary Clinton to help state and local governments cover the expense of providing health care and education to undocumented workers.

What do these suggestions have in common? They address legitimate concerns while issuing a challenge to Republicans who believe they can block reform and still win future elections -- as long as they expand their support among the white working class.

The catch for the GOP is that it doesn't seem eager to do anything concrete to earn the loyalty of such voters, many of whom stayed home in 2012 rather than vote for Mitt Romney. Battling for a higher minimum wage would test the Republicans' newfound love for the salt of the earth. Are they willing to embrace an idea endorsed by seven in 10 Americans? Or do they retreat to Mr. Romney's rhetoric privileging "job creators" over workers?

Raising the minimum wage would also respond to a claim put forward by opponents of immigration reform. "The last thing low-skilled native and immigrant workers already here should have to deal with is wage-depressing competition from newly arriving workers," wrote William Kristol and Rich Lowry in a joint op-ed this week that signaled growing opposition on the right to the Senate immigration bill.

It's heartwarming to know that the editors of the Weekly Standard and National Review are now worried about depressed wages. In truth, granting immigrants who are here illegally basic labor rights would have a positive effect on wages for all workers. But if Messrs. Kristol and Lowry are really worried about low-paid workers, let their next literary collaboration be an endorsement of a $9 or $10 hourly minimum wage.

Ms. Clinton's 2006 proposal likewise represents a substantive reply to questions regularly voiced by immigration foes.

The fiscal benefits of immigration reform to the federal government have been documented by the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated it would reduce the deficit by nearly $850 billion over two decades. But states and localities face additional costs for schools and health care for many immigrants who arrived illegally. The result can be higher property and sales taxes that hit working-class Americans hardest.

It makes sense for the federal government to share some of reform's fiscal bounty with governments lower down the chain. Such assistance would be a better use of the $46 billion the Senate added to the bill to further militarize our southern border.

The minimum wage and fiscal relief link to a larger imperative: With so many Republicans deciding that obstructing immigration reform is worth the political risks with Latino voters, this can no longer be seen as a normal legislative fight. Indeed, given the inclinations of House Republicans, there are no "normal" legislative fights anymore. Mr. Kristol and Mr. Lowry gave the game away: "In any case, House Republicans should make sure not to allow a conference with the Senate bill." In other words, down with the traditional ways of reaching compromise. Just say no, and no and no again.

President Barack Obama should see nattering negative nabobism as an invitation: Immigration reform now has to be dealt with as part of a concerted effort to create an economy that grows because it's more just -- and is more just because it's growing.

Low- and middle-income workers took the biggest hit in the Great Recession, as a report released this week by the National Employment Law Project showed. Real median hourly wages fell overall by 2.8 percent between 2009 and 2012, but by 5 percent or more in half of the top 10 low-wage occupations.

Immigration reform is easier to kill if it is disconnected from the concerns of such wage earners. It's easier to pass if it is seen as a necessary step toward an inclusive economy where the rights of native-born workers are strengthened because the rights of immigrants are protected -- and where the real wages of average workers are rising again.

As for Republicans who want to stake their future on the working class, by all means let's welcome a healthy competition. Let these voters ask the GOP: What will you do to raise our pay? And, by the way, new tax cuts for the rich are not an answer to the question.

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E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).


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