Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

What’s Next for the GOP on Immigration?

Migrants being detained in El Paso by the Border Patrol, May 17 (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Trump missed his best chance for an immigration deal, but Republicans still need to know what they want

Immigration law has hardly changed during Donald Trump’s presidency. The fact may be surprising given that immigration was the most important discrete issue on which he campaigned and immigration has been a reliable source of controversy since he took office.

Nevertheless it is true. None of the big changes to immigration policy for which Trump has at various times called has come to pass. The physical barriers on the southern border are not much more extensive than they were when Trump took office; we are nowhere close to having a wall. The number of legal immigrants we commit to accepting has not declined. Nor have our policies been changed to place a greater emphasis on high-skilled immigrants than on the siblings of previous immigrants. People who came to this country illegally as minors, known as the “Dreamers” because of a legislative acronym from a few years back, still don’t have regular legal status. Trump and his appointees have certainly changed some executive-branch practices, but the next president who disagrees with the new ones will be able to change them right back.

This state of affairs shows every sign of persisting for the next several years. Conservatives who are unhappy with it should devote some thought to why so little progress has been made, and prepare so they’re ready the next time there’s a chance to make some.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Trump made the wall into the test of toughness on illegal immigration — more than requiring companies to verify the legal status of new employees, which would probably do more to reduce illegal immigration. But he didn’t make getting funding for a wall a priority when Republicans held Congress. Republican leaders in Congress certainly weren’t going to fight hard for a wall when Trump wasn’t asking them to: It was his cause, not theirs.

Even if Republicans had made a wall (or other immigration policies) one of their main items of business in 2017 and 2018, alongside tax reform and Obamacare replacement, Senate Democrats had the power to filibuster and would have used it. Trump’s best shot at getting a wall therefore came in early 2018, when Senate Democrats were on the defensive. They had just brought on a government shutdown by insisting on legalizing the Dreamers, and then given in. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who leads his party in the Senate, floated the idea of spending as much as $25 billion for border security in return for the legalization.

The Trump administration shot down the idea. The president said that any deal would have to include certain principles, including a large reduction in legal immigration. There are reasonable, although of course contestable, arguments for such a reduction: It might improve the bargaining power of low-wage workers and facilitate faster assimilation of immigrants. But most polling suggested that only a minority of Americans favor this change, it had hardly been debated or even discussed much by Trump, and he sought it on a fast timetable. When the Senate voted on cutting legal immigration, 14 Republicans joined nearly all the Democrats to say no.

It was a moment that illustrated some of the endemic dysfunction of the administration. It was, once again, a failure to set priorities and act on them. The reduction in legal immigration was important enough to the administration to be worth sacrificing the chance to get wall funding and legalization of the Dreamers. But it wasn’t important enough for Trump to feel moved to devote even a tweet to the Senate vote. And a year later, Trump said in his State of the Union address that he wanted to see legal immigration “in the largest numbers ever.”

The White House has been working on an immigration plan for much of the year. It splits the difference between Trump’s 2017–2018 and early-2019 positions by leaving legal-immigration levels unchanged. But the moment for a deal has passed even if Trump has dropped the demand that helped to kill it.

That is largely because of changes on the Democratic side of the debate. The Democrats have more power in Washington than they did when they seemed ready to deal, and the shutdown of early 2018 is long forgotten. After that time, Trump briefly presided over a chaotically implemented policy of “zero tolerance” for illegal border crossing, which caused the separation of many children from their parents; it proved extremely unpopular and was abandoned. A few months later Trump brought on another, longer government shutdown over the failure of Congress to give him funding for the wall. That gambit having failed, Trump then issued a declaration of an emergency at the border to let him devote some funds to construction of a wall. All of these events have hardened Democratic attitudes about cooperating with Trump on immigration, as has the nearing of the next election.

The long-term trends among Democrats also militate against a deal. Democratic voters used to be ambivalent about immigration, and Democratic politicians knew it. Bill Clinton’s administration called for a reduction in legal immigration. The first time Hillary Clinton ran for president, she said illegal immigrants — a phrase she used — should not have driver’s licenses and she wanted tougher sanctions on employers who hire them.

But polling has shown a steady shift among Democrats in favor of immigration and against tough enforcement policies. Among Democrats, support for immigration control has become associated, in a way it wasn’t in the past, with Republicans, and with Trump, and with intolerance and bigotry. This is especially true among white liberals.

Democratic strategists have also become more and more convinced that their new positions on immigration are political winners, at least over the long term. The rising share of voters who are of Hispanic or Asian descent has contributed to this confidence. So has a general public shift on the issue, less pronounced than the shift among Democrats but still substantial, in favor of immigration. Gallup’s latest finding is that 27 percent of Americans favor increased immigration levels — a record high; 35 percent want less immigration, and 37 percent, the current level.

Democratic politicians have gotten the message. In her second presidential run, Clinton reversed herself on licenses and apologized for her past terminology. Her main primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, also dropped his past skepticism of immigration, which he had regarded as a capitalist plot to lower wages. This trend has continued into the Trump era. It is no longer unusual to hear a Democratic official call for abolishing the main agency that enforces immigration laws, or to come out as a general matter against the deportation of illegal immigrants.

Major legislation on immigration is therefore extraordinarily unlikely to be enacted during the remainder of this presidential term. It is pretty unlikely even if Trump is reelected so long as the Democrats retain a majority in the House. It would be wrong, though, to conclude that it is pointless for the White House or other Republicans to offer proposals on immigration. Refining such proposals and building support for them — not least by fostering greater unity on the issue among Republicans — could make it possible to enact versions of them into law in the future. They could also help Republicans make the case against the Democrats’ current stance.

Some of the elements of a Republican proposal are obvious. Most in the party already agree on the need to tighten the asylum rules to deter purely economic migrants. There is also a consensus that additional or augmented physical barriers are needed on parts of the southern border even if a “big, beautiful wall” isn’t. Mandatory verification of the legal status of new hires is still a divisive issue among Republican lawmakers — but it’s hard to imagine a credible enforcement regime without it. According to some estimates, as many as two-thirds of recent illegal immigrants came here legally but overstayed their visas. No amount of “border security” would affect their numbers; an employment-verification regime would.

Republicans will have to build an internal consensus, as well, on the question of numbers. Trump’s most recent public stance, that the number of legal immigrants should rise, is the same as that of pre-Trump Republican lawmakers. But it’s a view held by a minority of the public, and an even smaller minority of Republican voters. It’s also not clear what pressing national problem it would ameliorate.

Pursuing a reduction in legal immigration would probably make it impossible to build a case for any other parts of a plan: The critics and the media would seize on it as extreme, unpopular, and divisive even among Republicans. Those who favor that reduction should consider as well that it is not necessary to achieve some of the goals it’s supposed to advance. Holding legal immigration constant while cutting illegal immigration would reduce the total amount of immigration and the total amount of low-skilled immigration. If restrictionists are right, then, we ought to see some positive effects for low-wage workers and in assimilation. 

These effects should be even more pronounced if we alter the composition of legal immigration to include more people we’re in effect recruiting for economic reasons and fewer we’re welcoming because they’re the siblings of previous immigrants. Applicants could be given preference if they have certified skills, are young adults, know enough English to get by — and even more preference the more of these conditions apply. Those who argue for increased immigration on economic grounds, because it increases GDP or the solvency of entitlement programs, should welcome a shift toward high-skilled immigration for the same reasons.

For some Republicans, these ideas are quite enough to address without also figuring out what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants who already live among us. It’s not necessary to resolve that issue in order to place more emphasis on skills in legal immigration. It may not be politically possible to duck it, though.

Republicans, like the public at large, are divided into three camps on it. Some would like to extend legal status or even citizenship to most illegal immigrants, at least those who have put down roots here and behaved tolerably well; some are against any legalization in principle; and some are open to legalization so long as they have confidence that immigration laws will be enforced afterward, and this legalization will be the last legalization. 

Given the reasonable distrust on that score, it probably makes sense to proceed in stages: providing legal status for some illegal immigrants, such as the Dreamers, while increasing enforcement in the workplace and elsewhere, and moving to legalize more only after enforcement is shown to be working. Legislating in pieces is also more likely to result in getting bills into law than trying to do everything at once: “Comprehensive immigration reform” has been tried and has failed under nearly every possible configuration of power in Washington, D.C.

An immigration policy that better serves the nation’s needs and divides it less is possible. It may have to wait until after this presidency, and this season of Democratic politics.

This article appears as “Stuck at the Border” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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