Politics & Policy

The GOP Risks Being Outmaneuvered on the DREAM Act

A Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico, Calif., in 2009. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
In exchange for giving permanent legal status to millions, and thus encouraging more illegal immigration, the GOP will get … a vague promise of ‘border security.’

A few days into negotiations over a DACA replacement, it seems as though Republicans might be allowing the Left to set the terms for debate over immigration. Echoing Nancy Pelosi, some Republicans have already begun to say that “border security” funding could be an appropriate trade for the DREAM Act. It’s clear why immigration maximalists would like to trade “border security” for the DREAM Act: It does little to turn off the magnets for illegal immigration (among them jobs and the hope of eventual legal status), and it can easily be gutted. But it’s not clear why conservatives — or, frankly, immigration moderates — should be happy with that trade. And it is certainly far from clear why Republicans should make “border security” their opening bid on a DACA fix.

Not all Republicans have been buffaloed into a DREAM–for–“border security” trade. Senator Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Representative Lamar Smith (Texas) have called for a combination of E-Verify and the RAISE Act in exchange for the DREAM Act. Other senior Republicans have continued to insist on tying DREAM into a broader immigration package. But many — including in the upper reaches of the party’s congressional wing — seem to mention “border security” only in discussing things to trade for a DACA replacement. Some Republicans are trying to make a DACA replacement even more expansionist. According to Politico, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson has considered adding DACA legislation to his proposed state-based guest-worker program. The more Republicans insist solely on “border security” (not interior enforcement and legal-immigration reform), the more they undermine their ability to cut a deal on DACA that advances conservative priorities.

The DREAM Act is a substantial piece of legislation. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 3 million people could be eligible under the Senate’s version of the DREAM Act, and about 1.5 million could end up getting a green card through that legislation. Thus, a population larger than that of Hawaii could end up becoming citizens. Moreover, under current immigration law, those who became citizens from the DREAM Act could then immediately sponsor their parents for permanent legal residency. This is not a small legalization. In fact, according to the Department of Homeland Security, 1.6 million illegal immigrants who had been in the country since before 1982 obtained permanent-residency status from the 1986 Reagan amnesty (another million or so gained legal status through the 1986 amnesty’s agricultural-worker provisions). Thus, the DREAM Act could give permanent legal status to as many people as the central program of the Reagan amnesty did.

The magnitude of the DREAM Act doesn’t necessarily tell us whether or not it should be passed, but it does indicate how much the center-Right would be giving up by agreeing to it. A few billion dollars for “border security” will not counteract the massive incentive for illegal immigration that the DREAM Act will create. For immigration maximalists, inspiring more illegal immigration might be more a feature than a bug. For those who want a sustainable immigration system that honors the rule of law, a fig-leaf of “border security” is not a sufficient trade for the DREAM Act.

Moreover, passing the DREAM Act without making any substantial reforms to enforcement or legal immigration would be a massive strategic setback for those who want to reform the immigration system so that it encourages integration and opportunity. Unlike the Reagan amnesty, a fig-leaf DACA fix would secure almost no structural changes for enforcement, and the Reagan amnesty failed catastrophically at the goal of putting the American immigration system on a surer legal and civic footing. Giving maximalists so much in exchange for so little, a DACA–“border security” trade would be like sending the center-Right into the third quarter down 21–3 — and immigration moderates don’t exactly have the track record of a Tom Brady in terms of scoring successes. Instead, proponents of an integrationist immigration policy need every opportunity they can get.

Done right, a DACA fix could be training wheels for a bigger effort at immigration reform. Putting in place E-Verify would help codify an enforcement regime, and RAISE-lite (with targeted revisions of certain visa categories) would help reform the immigration system so that it prioritizes the nuclear family and jobs. Many Republicans have called for more guest-worker visas because of a supposed worker shortage, but if a shortage of skilled workers is a real problem, those Republicans would be better off calling for a re-balancing of the current legal immigration system. Trading the DREAM Act for “border security” alone, however, makes it harder to make incremental, evidence-based reforms to our immigration system.

Done right, a DACA fix could be training wheels for a bigger effort at immigration reform.

President Trump has his own responsibility in this. If he signals that he’ll be willing to cut a DACA deal no matter what the price, he makes it easy for congressional Democrats to undermine their Republican counterparts in negotiations: “President Trump wants to sign the DREAM Act, so why are you making it difficult for him?” Intra-GOP skirmishing on immigration might delight the media and the scalp-hunters on the right, but it would do little to advance the platform the president ran on.

The president might also remember what happened to another prominent Republican — Marco Rubio — when he tried to cut a deal with Chuck Schumer on immigration. The Gang of Eight bill ended up giving immigration maximalists everything (legal status for millions of illegal immigrants, more guest-worker programs, Potemkin enforcement) while giving moderates almost nothing. Trump catapulted to the GOP nomination in part by railing against corrupt bargains on illegal immigration, so he faces unique political dangers if he signs a DREAM Act without making any substantive improvements to the immigration system. If the president lives up to his commitments in certain areas (such as judicial nominations and immigration), he could have room to negotiate with Democrats on other issues. But failing to deliver on immigration could make him politically vulnerable.

So far in 2017, Republicans have managed to accomplish something Barack Obama never could: make the Affordable Care Act popular. If Republicans pass the DREAM Act without winning any substantial reforms to the enforcement or legal-immigration systems, they will have done more to advance immigration maximalism — and create incentives for future illegal immigration — than Democrats did during their 2009–10 apogee. They will have ended up ratifying, rather than correcting, Barack Obama’s vision for immigration. They will have laid a few bricks for a wall not along the southern border but between the body politic and an immigration system that better honors the principles of civic belonging, national security, and opportunity for all Americans.


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