When Democrats Wanted to Compromise on Immigration

Immigration-reform protesters march through a Senate office building, January 17, 2018. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Not long ago, liberals embraced restrictions.

Editor’s Note: The following essay originally appeared in City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.

There’s little reason to believe that President Trump’s State of the Union immigration proposals will be met with anything but continued Democratic “resistance.” The Democrats’ packing the galleries with so-called dreamers was a signal that Trump’s offer of a “path to citizenship” for 1.8 million of them, a serious concession, hasn’t softened liberal opposition.

The hard line is relatively new. Not long ago, moderate Democrats signed on to a serious immigration proposal that overlapped in several ways with the president’s plan. In 2009, the Brookings Institution, in tandem with Duke University’s Kenan Center for Ethics, convened a bipartisan group, of which I was a member, to accomplish what the title of our report promised: “Breaking the Immigration Stalemate.” The group included thoughtful policy experts from across the political spectrum.

No one proposed a wall, certainly. But we did agree on a commitment to the electronic E-Verify system, designed to make it impossible for illegal immigrants to get hired for jobs. And, before “chain migration” entered the political discussion, we pushed to limit the practice: “Congress Should Eliminate Diversity Visas, Restrict Eligibility for Family-Sponsored Visas, and Increase Visas for Skilled Immigrants,” our report declared. Doing this would mean an additional 150,000 visas for workers with coveted skills — and an end to granting preference to newcomers simply because they represented “diversity” or had blood relations here already. (That was then: Tuesday night, Democrats hooted and booed President Trump when he proposed to limit this practice, demonstrating how quickly the Left has moved in a radical direction.)

Our report suggested that extended family members should no longer get immigration preference but that spouses and children, as members of nuclear families, still would. Workplace enforcement would lay the foundation for eventual legalization. Even this came with conditions, though. We proposed the launch of a “legalization program requiring unauthorized workers who have been in the country for five or more years to: pay a fine; provide evidence of current employment and a steady work history, payment of taxes, and good moral character; pass a background check; and study English and learn about U.S. history and government.”

The Brookings–Duke report fit within a moderate-Democrat tradition of immigration restriction that has now vanished. Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan — the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South — chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which reported to President Clinton in 1997. Among its consensus conclusions: “Effective policy means enforcement of immigration limits; sponsors are responsible for ensuring that immigrants do not become a burden on the American taxpayer; immigration policy must protect U.S. workers against unfair competition from foreign workers, and a sound immigration policy supports Americanization.” Jordan called out low-skilled immigration as responsible for depressing the wages and employment of African Americans, a perspective that has now been banished from Democratic dogma as hateful and divisive. The report led Clinton to agree to reduce legal immigration by one-third. All this at a time when Donald Trump was a Democrat!

The Brookings–Duke report fit within a moderate-Democrat tradition of immigration restriction that has now vanished.

It’s hard to imagine prominent Democrats endorsing such plans today, though doing so could go a long way toward defusing the bad feelings about immigration policy. Compromise with the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be on the table; Democrats seem determined to stick with a hardline on amnesty, without negotiations. But the underappreciated Brookings–Duke report pointed the way toward good policy that could gain broad political acceptance. Clearly, $25 billion for a wall might make it tough for willing Democrats to accept Trump’s concessions on “dreamers.” But how about an “electronic wall”? Let Trump and the Democrats save face — and negotiations actually get to “yes.”


No, Chain Migration is not a Racist Term

Port Authority Bomber: The Fruit of Chain Migration

Democrats’ Immigration Extremism

Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is currently at work on a history of low-income housing.