Politics & Policy

Can the Gang of Eight Nostalgia

From left: Senators Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio, and John McCain listen as Chuck Schumer speaks at a “Gang of Eight” news briefing in 2013. (Reuters photo: Jason Reed)
If our immigration problems are to be fixed, it won’t be because Congress adheres to the mainstream media’s skewed notion of bipartisanship.

Since the end of his disastrous 2016 presidential run Jeb Bush hasn’t been getting much attention from the media. So there Bush was recently, criticizing Senator Marco Rubio for his low profile in the immigration debate. Bush’s attack on Rubio for abandoning his 2013 stance in favor of a comprehensive reform package that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants proved something conservatives have long known: To the mainstream media, bipartisanship means Republicans coming around to Democratic positions.

But that still leaves us with the question of how to define leadership.

According to Bush, it should require Rubio to stick to his previous position even if the political landscape has been completely altered over the past five years. Displaying some of the rancor that still lingers from the 2016 race in which the two men effectively sabotaged each other’s chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination, Bush mocked Rubio: “God forbid you actually took on something that was controversial and paid a political price.”

That sounds good to critics of the Republicans who believe their stance against amnesty and demands for border security and the wall President Trump has demanded are inherently unreasonable. From their point of view, anything short of Rubio choosing to go down with the Gang of Eight ship that sank five years ago is evidence of cowardice.

In response, Rubio labeled Bush’s advice “legislative malpractice” rather than “courage.” He defended his position as a pragmatic response to political reality in which senatorial dealmakers can’t ignore the wishes of their parties or their constituents. He argues that working with conservative immigration hawks rather than merely helping Democrats thwart them is the best way to defend the interests of immigrants.

Rubio made some good points about the virtues of problem-solving politics as opposed to heroic stands that will never help pass a bill. But he would have done better to ask Bush why it is that the rest of the GOP is so opposed to what the former Florida governor and the Democrats want.

The only possible immigration compromise isn’t, as Bush and the Democrats claim, one in which more Republicans put aside their objections to the terms of 2013.

The 2013 Gang of Eight immigration bill has become the touchstone for the notion of bipartisan compromise since its demise. But for all of the attention given to the four Democrats and four Republicans who were its main sponsors, the comprehensive approach in which amnesty for all illegal immigrants was tied to border-security measures never garnered support from enough Republicans in Congress.

That’s because Republicans in Congress, and the constituents they represent, distrust the notion that the government could be trusted to secure the border so as to avoid another wave of illegal immigrants once the estimated 11 million already here were given a pass and potentially put on a path to citizenship. The 1986 immigration-reform bill signed by Ronald Reagan was supposed to solve a similar problem. But that amnesty effort merely resulted in another wave of illegal immigrants, who not unreasonably concluded that they, too, wouldn’t have to pay a price for jumping the queue to legally enter the United States.

Rather than merely dismissing this argument, as Democrats did after the House refused to pass the Gang of Eight bill, some of the bill’s Republican supporters took it to heart, because President Obama’s immigration rhetoric and then his executive orders proved conservatives right. Once Obama extended effective amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants via DACA, there was another surge of new arrivals. In particular, the flood of undocumented minor children seemed to validate the concern that granting impunity to one group of illegal immigrants only encourages others to follow in its footsteps. Conversely, the election of a president who is seen as a foe of amnesty has served to deter many from crossing the border illegally with such crossings drastically reduced since Trump took office.

The debate about Dreamers and DACA is taking place in a radically different political environment than 2013’s. The fact that, as Rubio pointed out, there are very few “Jeb Bush Republicans” left in Congress is a result of Obama’s high-handed immigration policies, which decimated the already-dwindling ranks of those who fit that description.

So if Rubio and some other supporters of the Gang of Eight bill have now changed their minds, it isn’t necessarily a function of cowardice or even pure cynical self-interest. Much as Rubio may still desire a solution that will put all illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, the idea that liberalization shouldn’t wait until the border is secured has been discredited.

The only possible immigration compromise isn’t, as Bush and the Democrats claim, one in which more Republicans put aside their objections to the terms of 2013; it’s one in which Democrats recognize that a comprehensive bill is a non-starter under current circumstances.

Given Democrats’ loathing of Trump, it may be that their impulse to deny him any legislative victory will be greater than their desire to help the Dreamers. But in order to help DACA recipients, they must back down on their threats and give Trump and the Republicans funding for a border wall. That, rather than Gang of Eight nostalgia, will be a measure of genuine bipartisanship in 2018.


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