Can immigration be the next big bipartisan deal?

Illustrated | iStock, Library of Congress

byDavid FarisNovember 9, 2021November 9, 2021Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare via Email

On Friday night, the Democratic-led House finally passed the bipartisan infrastructure framework. Because it was preceded by months of acrimonious debate inside the Democratic Party, there has thus far been very little media celebration of a bill that was meant to prove that the two parties can still work together productively. Maybe no one cared that much about bipartisanship to begin with. More likely, it’s because most people think the bill was a stunt, rather than the first achievement in a new era of across-the-aisle cooperation.

That’s why, if moderates are serious about making Congress functional again, they’ll need a very significant encore. 

Not everyone loved the infrastructure bill, but voting for it endangered no one’s job. For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the brief display of across-the-aisle problem solving was meant to diminish the momentum toward eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule without budging on core Republican priorities. It also had the added bonus that members in tight races next year, like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), could brag about delivering for their states. And while progressive activists are disappointed with the bill’s size and scope, it is unlikely that a single primary challenge will be mounted against a Democrat for supporting it.

A better test of whether a new D.C. is possible would be something that generates enormous grassroots pressure against members of both parties. And what issue is better positioned for that role than comprehensive immigration reform? Show me a picture of President Biden signing immigration legislation into law and I’ll start believing Democrats and Republicans can work together for the common good. 

The festering wound of immigration policy has bedeviled policymakers in both parties for two decades, while the failure to address shortcomings of the current system has allowed more and more problems to pile up. A majority of voters has been dissatisfied with current policy for the entirety of this young century, and the inability to muster sufficient will to do something about it is right up there with health care and gun reform on the list of destructive partisan standoffs that both serve as indictments of our broken, poisonous politics and cause genuine, preventable human suffering.

Yet it’s possible to sketch the outlines of an immigration deal that can get at least ten Republicans on board. The last effort, in 2013, failed not because it lacked majority support in Congress, but because then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to put a bill that had gotten 68 votes in the Senate up for a vote. Five Senate Republicans who voted for that measure are still there: Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), Marco Rubio (Fla.), John Hoeven (S.D.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.). Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was in the House in 2013, has supported some subsequent reform efforts. Surely there are four more Republicans who, in their hearts, would like to tackle this problem in good faith. 

What would it take? Let’s start with something that’s non-negotiable for Democrats: a permanent end to the threat of deportation and a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers” — the 1.8 million people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and are currently protected from being thrown out of the country only by the wildly popular DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) program. 

Democrats also would likely demand a temporary work visa program, similar to the one proposed in the 2013 legislation, that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and work legally, while millions more avoid that limbo in the first place. Such legislation would enable the vast majority of migrants to do what they really want: earn money and eventually go back home. Making that path a possibility for Central American migrants might even be key to alleviating the problems at the border. 

The price of these programs, if they are to be enacted with Republican support significant enough to overcome the filibuster in the Senate, would be steep, and for many Democrats, deeply unpalatable. Republicans would likely demand the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy implemented by former President Donald Trump in 2018 be restored by Congress. That rule allows the U.S. to keep asylum seekers at the southern border in Mexico, rather than in the U.S., until their claims can be adjudicated in court. 

An even more bitter pill for Democrats to swallow would be more fundamental changes to the immigration regime. No one in the party is going to sign off on a 40 percent reduction in legal immigration, as was proposed by the Trump administration. But a cut of some kind might be necessary to get the bill through Congress, and, if paired with measures designed to increase skilled immigration in sectors like health care and scientific research, there might not be much change in the aggregate. Republicans would also be likely to ask for reduced refugee numbers. And while Democrats will hold firm against building a wall, they would probably need to sign off on various other security proposals, including more border patrol officers. 

Please don’t mistake this for an endorsement of these concessions on their merits, some of which are heartless and will achieve no meaningful good in the world. But Democrats have to be realistic here. The kind of Senate majority capable of things like abolishing or reducing the size of ICE, demilitarizing the border and opening the country up to more immigrants and asylum seekers, as progressives want, is not in any way on the horizon. Windows and lawns in big cities might be festooned with those “No human being is illegal” signs, but a world in which that slogan is anything but empty feels further away than ever.

Polling shows supermajorities of Americans consider the situation at the border to be a significant problem. Blame the Fox News-led border hysteria all you want, but this sentiment must be reckoned with if Democrats are to stay in power or increase their majorities to the point where more progressive solutions can be feasible.

Republicans, for their part, must recognize that they lack a majority even in their own caucus for more draconian changes to the system, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority is no more likely in the short or medium term for the GOP than it is for Democrats. No one is getting everything they want here, and now is as good a time as any for party leaders to accept that reality.

Nevertheless, there are still a million reasons why immigration reform is unlikely. For the GOP, it’s more convenient to let the problem fester and ride the politics to victory than it is to do anything about it. Democrats are still having trouble accepting that many voters don’t share their antipathy to border security. And a compromise along these lines would make the next primary election absolute hell for countless members of both parties. A Biden administration that has already burned through so much of its political capital may not be interested in taking on an issue that will make new enemies on the left and the right, all just in time for the midterm elections.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The inability to tackle thorny challenges is America’s stickiest political wicket. And it shows: The last time Congress enjoyed the approval of a majority of Americans was in 2003. If lawmakers don’t want another 20 years of Americans believing our national legislature is a den of self-interested thieves, they’ll have to start solving difficult problems.



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