An advance press briefing last week teased that at tonight’s State of the Union address the president would move beyond the current border-security wrangling and offer a grand, new vision for moving forward on immigration, involving something Trump has not said before.
That could just be marketing hype, but there’s reason to be worried. That’s because the formulation of this new — dare I say “comprehensive” — thrust on immigration is apparently not being overseen by Stephen Miller, but by Jared Kushner. This has raised alarm bells because of Kushner’s Manhattan millionaire liberal instincts, but I’m not sure that that’s the main problem.
Rather, I fear that the combination of Kushner’s unfamiliarity with the past 30 years of immigration politics, combined with overconfidence in his powers stemming from his success in brokering criminal-justice reform, will lead the White House astray. Jared could end up like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, stepping on one rake after another, because the immigration issue is strewn with rakes just waiting to smack the unsuspecting policy entrepreneur in the face. As a service to those in the White House who are new to the immigration issue, here are a few of those rakes, just waiting to be stepped on:
Beyond the broadly applicable stupid party/evil party joke, immigration is unusual because it doesn’t necessarily split along party lines. That’s changing, as the Democratic mainstream becomes increasingly radical, abandoning the legacy of civil-rights pioneer Barbara Jordan and rejecting limits on immigration and even borders themselves. But the Republicans are still split, with a significant libertarian/corporate bloc that shares the Democrats’ perspective. That’s what we saw with the Gang of Eight, and with the various iterations of its mid-2000s McCain-Kennedy precursor. The bipartisan coalition for criminal-justice reform played a successful inside game on an issue that didn’t arouse broad passions. But bringing together Democrats who support amnesty and unlimited immigration with Republicans who support amnesty and unlimited immigration has never accomplished much. If anything, the repeated bipartisan-immigration initiatives contributed to the alienation of much of the citizenry from our nomenklatura, fueling the rise of Trump.
My amnesty is not an amnesty
It has become a grim joke that politicians pushing an amnesty will preface their comments with a disclaimer that what they’re proposing isn’t amnesty. As I wrote in this space lo, these many years ago, the late Arlen Specter sputtered that“amnesty” is “a code word to try to smear good-faith legislation,” while the New York Times huffed that it is “the most mealy mouthed word in the immigration glossary.” The National Council of La Raza led the way with focus groups in 2001 that showed the necessity for euphemisms; today’s entry in the euphemism sweepstakes is “permanent solution,” which sounds a little too “final” for me.
Even though any policy that allows an illegal alien to remain here legally is an amnesty, the not-amnesty claim is that if there is any sort of condition or eligibility requirement for the amnesty, or if it results in any status short of full voting rights, then somehow it’s not an amnesty.
The president has been tempted by this false distinction. During the fall 2017 premier of the Talking DACA with Chuck and Nancy show, the president told reporters,“We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here.” The president got hit smack in the face with a rake that time, earning the moniker “Amnesty Don,” and he doesn’t seem to have tried that line again.
But Vice President Pence hasn’t learned the lesson. He flirted with such a message just last month, while making the pitch for the president’s unsuccessful proposal to end the shutdown, which included a three-year extension of the amnesty that DACA and TPS holders already had. In the run-up to the Senate vote on the measure, Pence said that “There is no amnesty in the president’s plan and there is no pathway to citizenship.”
I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today
Another rake that I hope that the White House knows to avoid is the central element of all prior immigration packages — the amnesty happens immediately, while the enforcement measures are promised for the future. This was the core failure of the 1986 amnesty legislation, which gave green cards to nearly 3 million illegal aliens in exchange for a ban on hiring illegal aliens in the future. A few years after President Reagan signed the bill, once the amnesty had been completed, the anti-borders forces — senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, in league with La Raza — tried to welsh on the deal by making the employment of illegal aliens legal again. They were stopped by Coretta Scott King, but won in the end, as worksite enforcement stayed on the books but was essentially abandoned. This bipartisan act of betrayal by our political class is the reason the Bush and Obama amnesty campaigns failed, and it still poisons immigration politics today. Any measure proposed by the White House that lacks a significant element of up-front enforcement, like full implementation of E-Verify prior to any new legalizations, will result in yet another rake handle to the face.
There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary worker
A superficially attractive way out of the immigration box, especially for Republicans, is to push for guestworkers as a replacement for illegal immigrants. It’s attractive because the politicians can procure a cheap, controllable labor force for employers while telling voters that it’s all legal, and they’ll all go home so there won’t be any welfare or political consequences.
It’s a fantasy, in two ways: As a policy matter, temporary workers actually lead to increased illegal immigration and large-scale permanent settlement, as we saw with the big 1950s Mexican farmworker program, whose consequences are still felt today. And politically, loosening the labor market and undercutting the negotiating power of American workers happens whether we admit guestworkers legally or wink at the employment of illegal aliens.
The president has a weakness for guestworker visas, something we saw even during the primary debates, despite his “Hire American” rhetoric. He thought he could get applause for increased visas for foreign workers at a Michigan rally last April:
For the farmers it’s going to get really good. We’re going to let your guestworkers come in, because we have to have strong borders, but we have to let your workers in. Our unemployment picture is so good and so strong that we’ve got to let people come in, they’re going to be guestworkers. They’re going to work on your farms, we’re gonna have the H-2Bs [non-farm workers] come in, we’re going to have a lot of things happening, but then they have to go out. But we’re gonna let them in because you need them. … Guestworkers, don’t we agree? We have to have them.
People did not seem to agree, and this riff didn’t get much applause, and he hasn’t been this forthright since. But the president may return to the theme of importing foreign workers in the wake of revelations of illegal aliens working at many of his properties. But if the White House thinks that Trump voters can be fooled by tough talk on enforcement designed to mask increased importation of foreign labor, they should be prepared for another rake handle to the face.
While the president may be right that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” a betrayal on immigration would be a different story. This, I suspect, is why he so publicly delegated to others the task of coming up with an immigration proposal; if it triggers an adverse reaction, he maintains plausible deniability.
But it would be better for everyone to avoid stepping on the rakes in the first place.