Immigration Compromises Always Fall Short

A U.S. Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexican border near Calexico, Calif., in 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
There is some middle ground — but also areas where one side or the other must win.

Two Bills — Galston, of the Brookings Institution; and Kristol, of The Weekly Standard — have teamed up to create the New Center, a think tank in the mold of the Bipartisan Policy Center or No Labels. (Indeed, it began as an offshoot of the latter.) And the center’s debut report suggests yet another bill: It’s a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, and a good opportunity to review the state of play on this issue.

Bluntly put, unless some last-minute murmurs from the Trump administration come to fruition, immigration skeptics just missed a key window during which Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. Once the new Congress arrives in January, any plan will have to win a majority in a Democratic House, beyond the current obstacle of hitting 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. Assuming the president doesn’t soften his tone, making a more left-leaning deal possible, we’re not going to see much action until at least 2021. Not to mention that big-picture immigration “compromises” have failed repeatedly in recent years, whatever the balance of power in D.C.

And that brings us to the substance of the new report: Is there anything here that breaks the logjam, whether under Trump or the next president? Like many similar proposals, it puts forth a defensible and often laudable arrangement — but also highlights the inherent difficulty here.

Let’s start with a high point. The changes to the legal-immigration system are beautiful, matching almost precisely suggestions I’ve made myself in the past. In line with public opinion, the overall level of legal immigration is left alone. But whereas the current system lets in 68 percent of our immigrants on the basis of family ties, the plan would move toward a merit-based system that takes factors such as education, work experience, job offers, and English skills into account.

It’s the approach to illegal immigration that hits roadblocks. The mix of policies is actually fine. But the order in which those policies take effect is always the fault line between left and right.

Specifically, the proposal is vulnerable to one of the biggest conservative critiques of previous efforts: It trades amnesty for enforcement to address the problem of illegal immigration, but it doesn’t ensure the enforcement comes first. This creates the risk that the amnesty will happen but the enforcement won’t, as was the case after the immigration bill that Ronald Reagan signed in 1986.

The plan would offer legal status, and permanent residency after ten years, to those who have resided here continuously since the end of 2011, have paid application fees and back taxes, and have clean criminal records. “Dreamers” who arrived as minors and had not committed felonies would get green cards right away. The plan would also step up border security with a mix of fencing and more advanced technologies, and implement a new system for tracking people on temporary visas. (About 42 percent of illegal immigrants overstayed their visas rather than sneaking over the border.) Further, it would mandate the use of E-Verify, a currently voluntary system with which employers may check whether job applicants are in the country legally.

That’s all great, but again, timing is key. Conservatives have long insisted on “enforcement first”: Once you’ve shown us that you can control the border, catch and deport those who overstay their visas, and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants — and once worksite enforcement has brought down the numbers a bit, through the famed process of  “self deportation” — then we can legalize the remaining illegal population. But there is no hint of delaying amnesty in the New Center plan, and it specifically says that E-Verify must not be implemented until everyone has had a chance to apply for legal status. Once amnesty is granted, of course, conservatives lose all leverage to insist on the vigorous implementation of the enforcement measures they were promised.

To be fair, if the plan had gone the other way, you’d be reading the mirror image of my complaints in some liberal rag. They’d say that putting enforcement first would unfairly drive illegal immigrants out of the country before they could be amnestied. Unfortunately this key issue can’t really be compromised on: You can shift around which parts of the law go into effect at what time — say, border enforcement and visa tracking go first, then amnesty, and finally E-Verify — but if any part of the enforcement package comes after amnesty, conservatives will be left taking it on faith that it will happen at all.

If a plan like this one becomes law, I’m afraid it will be over the objections of the other side, not part of a centrist kumbaya moment. And the same thing is probably true for the kind of plan I’d prefer. Sometimes one side just has to win, and the other has to lose.

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