The Corner


The Art of a Lame-Duck Immigration Deal

(Larry Downing/Reuters)

On the homepage, Robert VerBruggen reflects on the difficulty of finding a compromise on immigration and thinks that Republicans have probably missed the chance to pass a major piece of immigration legislation in the 115th Congress. There is good reason to be pessimistic about a breakthrough on immigration during the lame-duck session. After the midterms, Republicans have relatively little leverage. Many federal judges seem intent on propping up DACA. Though they ran away from immigration during the general election, many vulnerable Democratic senators have either secured reelection or been defeated, so they have little incentive to compromise. Democrats know they will control the House in a few weeks. Meanwhile, the Republican caucus itself is divided and has proven unable to make much headway on immigration.

The key number to getting an immigration bill through Congress in the lame duck is 60, the number of senators required to end a filibuster, and getting to 60 might require a compromise. One possible framework for a compromise would be a three-part strategy: a limited amnesty, improvements to enforcement, and giving Democrats some important non-immigration policy measure that they want. This Democratic policy gift would have to be something valuable to Democrats that would not unduly splinter the Republican coalition. Below, I tease out the idea of making a minimum-wage increase part of a deal on immigration (an idea Mickey Kaus has championed), but there are other options, too. Moreover, if it is designed the right way, the amnesty can also be a vehicle for forward-looking legal-immigration reform.

The amnesty: Using a visa-offsets framework, roll the diversity visa (50,000 visas/year) and visa for adult siblings of U.S. citizens (65,000 visas/year) into paying for amnesty visas for official DACA recipients. If about 700,000 individuals are enrolled in DACA, it would take about 6-7 years to pay for those amnesty visas. After this period, those visas could be redistributed to employment-visa programs or be used to pay for more amnesty visas. More visa categories could be temporarily transitioned to amnesty visas if policymakers want a more expansive DACA fix (for example, including both those eligible for DACA and those who actually received it).

The enforcement: Implement either universal E-Verify for new hires or $5 billion for “the wall.” E-Verify would be a far more important structural mechanism for enforcement, and it will be central for any long-term amnesty deal. However, many activists reject E-Verify because they fear it could inflict costs on long-term illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Restricting E-Verify to new hires would minimize the risks of this somewhat, but, if immigration maximalists could not stomach that as a compromise measure, $5 billion for “the wall” could be an acceptable substitute. (Border-security is only a small part of deterring future illegal immigration, but maximalists could not argue that “the wall” would penalize current long-term illegal immigrants.) Part of this enforcement could also include tweaks to asylum rules.

The gift to Democrats: Increase the federal minimum wage to $8 an hour. A tight labor market — in part through limits on migration — is perhaps the best way of raising workers’ wages. Such a market does not discourage the creation of introductory jobs, but it also helps lift wages through the organic competition for labor. Using the minimum wage alone to prop up wages risks a host of unintended consequences. Nevertheless, many Democrats want an increase in the minimum wage, and a moderate increase is something Republicans could probably accept. The federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 in July 2009, and recent increases of the minimum wage have been in 70-cent increments. So a boost to $8.00 would be well within historical norms. This would be lower than the immediate jump to $9.25 called for in the Raise the Wage Act, a bill championed by Bernie Sanders and many congressional Democrats that would eventually raise the federal minimum wage to $15. But it would nevertheless be an increase. Moreover, as long as Republicans control either the Senate or the presidency, they can block efforts to raise the minimum wage. Democrats need Republican cooperation if they want to increase the minimum wage over the short and medium terms.

If Republicans show a willingness to trade Democrats non-immigration policy wins in exchange for certain reforms to the immigration system, they may have a better chance of making some headway on immigration. (Now, that’s only a better chance — not a guarantee or even a great likelihood.) Such policy flexibility might also require Republicans to de-emphasize some of the corporatist priorities that have calcified their legislative program and helped cause such a thin record this Congress.


The Latest

The Wuhan Lab Cover-Up

The Wuhan Lab Cover-Up

It's now certain that the U.S. government misled the public about the kind of research that the U.S. taxpayers were indirectly funding in China.