The Surprisingly Sunny Prospects for Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Thanks to Donald Trump, we now know that “amnesty” is acceptable to most Republicans.
I began my career in journalism ten years ago this month, and it’s been an interesting ride. On the first day of my first gig, after having spent several days barricaded in a hotel room cramming on economic indicators, I was asked to write up a short analysis of Mel Gibson’s dramatic weekend. Most of my work since then has been devoted to more sober subjects, and over the course of the decade I’ve come to hold a few theories about American politics in particular. One of them is that in even the most dramatic and heated political debates, perhaps 80 percent of Americans—party affiliation aside—are broadly in agreement about the appropriate course of action.
Immigration reform and border security are an example. Over the past ten years these interrelated issues have been hotly and continuously contested, but if you take a big picture view of the policy debate, the disagreements between Republicans and Democrats are relatively marginal. Most Democrats would agree with Republicans that securing the nation’s southern border is a legitimate federal responsibility and a worthwhile use of taxpayer resources. Admittedly, what that might entail, exactly, isn’t precisely clear. But let me put it this way: the ambiguity over whether Donald Trump is proposing a physical wall or a metaphorical one persists in part because most people, including most Republicans understand that it could only be the latter. Although there is a value to strategic fencing in certain sections of the border, it would be ludicrous to build a gilded Great Wall of China stretching between San Diego and Brownsville. Trump may not understand that, but most Americans do.
Meanwhile, polling shows a clear and large consensus in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and the basic components that any such deal is likely to include. There is some debate over whether such a deal should be sweeping; John Cornyn, our senior senator, argued in 2014 that perhaps it might be easier to pass a series of standalone bills rather than pitch the nation on a package—which is an intriguing idea, but not a particularly emotive or polarizing one.
And on the policy questions, in any case, most Americans can agree on a few things. Legal immigration should be facilitated, or at least made less inefficient and unpredictable. Access to certain visas for highly skilled or specialized workers should be expanded. Would-be migrants should be screened on entry, and those who represent a security risk should be denied. Illegal immigration—via illegal entry or by failure to abide by the terms of a legally-issued visa—should be discouraged, but not by unduly draconian or punitive measures. And the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are already here should be accorded some form of legal status, because legalization is preferable to the alternatives.
Our current policy, which mostly ignores unauthorized immigrants except when it comes time to a ferocious political debate, is suboptimal for both the workers in the shadows and the communities whose resources may be strained by, for example, school enrollment in excess of projections. Mass deportation would require a wildly expensive and intrusive expansion of the national security state. Enforcement through attrition would imply the deliberate pursuit of economic conditions that most native-born American workers would object to. All of that is easy to see, if you stop and think about it.
And here’s something surprising: most Americans can see the case for a path to citizenship. You wouldn’t get that impression if you watch cable news regularly, where partisan debates over “amnesty” are frequent and furious. The question is what ultimately scuttled the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” effort to pass comprehensive immigration legislation in 2013; President Barack Obama had insisted on the inclusion of a provision for a path to citizenship specifically, and a faction of House Republicans loudly refused to consider it. But polls suggest that a majority of Americans would have supported a path to citizenship, had the legislation passed Congress. In July of this year, in fact, Gallup found that 76 percent of Republicans would support it even now.
Alternatively, most Americans would probably consider a path to legal status of any kind as an acceptable compromise—and in all likelihood a majority of the affected immigrants would actually have seen it as such. In 1986 Ronald Reagan famously signed legislation that created a path to citizenship for the unauthorized immigrants then in the country; thirty years later, fewer than half of those who became eligible for his “amnesty” have applied for it. We’ll never know if Republicans had serious objections to the path to citizenship provision that Obama prioritized, back in 2013, or whether that merely struck them as fertile territory for grandstanding and demagoguery. Even so, I wish Democrats had given a path to legal status a try.
Recent events, however, have left me optimistic about the prospects for immigration reform next year, and we have one man to thank for it: Trump. Earlier this month, reports surfaced saying that the Republican nominee, in a meeting with Hispanic Republican leaders, had promised to take a less harsh tone on the subject of illegal immigration, and during his town hall with Sean Hannity here in Texas, Trump announced that the change might not be limited to his tone. “There could certainly be a softening,” he said, “because we’re not looking to hurt people.” That would suggest the kind of compassionate, common-sense ethos he spent the entire primary deriding when it was expressed by rivals like Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio. And over the past week Trump’s campaign has been floundering to explain the candidate’s garbled characterization of his own proposals, with the public consternation building to a point that the candidate announced he would give a major policy speech on the subject this evening.
It’s hard to predict what Trump might say. And it’s hard to see why it matters, frankly; he’s not likely to win the general election, and nothing about his campaign thus far has given the impression of consistency. But Trump’s flip-flopping on amnesty matters, because he’s spent the past two weeks with some of the GOP’s most vocal critics of immigration reform right by his side, supporting whatever his cause might be that day.
Jeff Sessions, the senator from Alabama, is a good example. He’s a longtime hardliner on the subject, and he might object next year if President Hillary Clinton calls on Congress to send her a comprehensive immigration reform bill, one that extends citizenship (or some other form of legal status) to the unauthorized immigrants already in the country. But Sessions joined Trump earlier today when he met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The campaign will eventually end, and Trump, one hopes, will fade into the background. But either way, next year Congress will be full of Republicans who have preemptively signed on to the softening he’s now endorsed.