Chris Hayes argues that the “plain fact of immigration politics in this country is that the Steve King/Stephen Miller wing of the GOP, a small minority of the country, has a total veto on it”—and has had one for the last 13 years. The majority of the country favors the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that Congress took up in 2006, 2007, and 2013. They were defeated each time by a “hardcore opposition [that] is driven by demographic and racial panic” rather than by concerns about “border security or lawfulness.”
I think this argument goes wrong from the first, with its reading of public opinion. Raising the level of legal immigration was a feature of those comprehensive bills. And while support for that policy has been rising, it’s still a minority view. In 2017, only 24 percent of respondents told Gallup they favored it. If you ask Americans the absolute number of immigrants they want to welcome each year, the results are what one might call, borrowing from Mitt Romney, severely restrictionist.
Polls have also found that while most Americans favor granting legal status to many illegal immigrants, they are willing to combine that policy with ideas, such as the end of the diversity-visa lottery, that are associated with restrictionists. The firmness and definitiveness of public opinion are easy to overstate.
My own sense of the politics, from having covered immigration about as long as Hayes has, is that the main reason the bills of 2005-13 lost was that a significant number of Americans who are not in the grip of racial or demographic panic believed that one amnesty would simply lead to another one in the future: that the bills’ enforcement measures would not be followed for the long haul, and we would end up with a new batch of illegal immigrants in addition to the ones we had legalized.
This seems to me an entirely reasonable view, and its prevalence argues for a step-by-step process in which trust is built up. I’ll concede, though, that Hayes’s view that one side of the debate has to be completely defeated and anathematized for any good to be done is more in keeping with the spirit of our age.