Is "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" Dead?

Newsletter #1--Special Dems-Gone-Wild Edition

Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform Dead? Sure looks like it.

The idea of “comprehensive” reform has dominated the immigration debate for decades. It always looked good on paper. There were two basic parts 1) Legalizing the 10 milion or more unauthorized immigrants who are already in the US (i.e. amnesty), while simultaneously 2) beefing up enforcement — at the border and inside the country — to prevent future unauthorized immigration.

A rough translation would be: “OK. People who’ve already snuck in get to stay and become citizens. But really — we mean it! — this is the last time. And we’re taking steps to make sure it is.” Even Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Democratic champion of amnesty, claimed to mean it. (He vowed last year to start building the wall himself.)

The bargain was bipartisan, compassionate, virtuous, poll-tested (“fix our broken immigration system” seems to have been the winning slogan). Editorial writers swooned. But in the real world, there was a problem of trust. In 1986, under Reagan, Congress had passed a similar reform. While the amnesty happened; the promised enforcement never materialized. Immigration-control types worried, with good reason, that the same thing would happen again unless somewhow the amnesty was delayed until enforcement measures were actually in place."Enforcement First" they called it. But the pro-immigration side worried that no level of enforcement would ever be deemed sufficient to trigger a delayed amnesty.

With no way to bridge this trust gap — and no real attempt, it must be said, from the overconfident pro-amnesty lobby, which saw history on its side —“comprehensivist” measures failed under both Presidents Bush and Obama, most recently in the form of the notorious 2013 “Gang of 8” bill. Then came Trump, and the arc of history veered off course. Yet editorialists could still hope Trump was just the one to finally put the Grand Bargain across, Nixon-China style. His base would trust him! Occasionally, Trump himself seemed to embrace these hopes.

I think you can now forget them. Three reasons:

1. The asylum surge: The current border crisis does not center on the 10-11 million illegal immigrants ‘living in the shadows’ in the U.S. It centers on the hundreds of thousands of putative “asylum” seekers (annually) from central American now overwhelming the system designed to assess their claims. The Gang of 8 bill really didn’t have much in it to address this problem—some more dollars for asylum judges, more border patrol agents. Against those incremental improvements you had to balance the significant lure of an amnesty (and the possibility of another one).

A package that might bring the new surge under control — involving a change in asylum standards and the treatment of juveniles — hasn’t been part of “comprehensive reform. The latter was designed as if the most urgent problem was illegals already here. It’s almost quaint to now hear Mayor Buttigieg talk about how “the real problem is we shouldn’t have 11 million undocumented people” Oh them, right. Yesterday’s cause. (Kind of like Obamacare!)

2. Dems no longer want the “enforcement” part of any deal. Nobody who watched the two Democratic debates could think that this party still supports the “enforcement” half of the “comprehensive” compromise — the idea that while the 10-plus million illegals get amnesty, there will be an attempt to prevent future illegal immigration of either the old clandestine kind or the new asylum-seeking kind There won’t be any attempt, if Democrats can help it.

It’s not just that none of the Dem presidential candidates (with the exception of half of Joe Biden) seem willing to deport any illegals who aren’t criminals (“absolutely not”—Senator Harris) — so that if you make it past the border, you’re home free. After all, Hillary Clinton had already gravitated to that position in 2016. It’s that the party also evinces no desire to block anyone at the border either. Senator Harris says any “mother who pays a coyote to transport her child through their country of origin, through the entire country of Mexico” to the U.S. deserves to stay, because “she has decided for that child to remain where they are is worse.” Sending her back is “not reflective of our America and our values and it has got to end.” This gets wild applause.

But wait, it’s not just asylum-on-demand. Julian Castro reminds us there are “millions of folks — a lot of folks that are coming are not seeking asylum. A lot of them are undocumented immigrants.” And he wants to “put undocumented immigrants, as long as they haven't committed a serious crime, on a pathway to citizenship.” More applause. Does anybody not get in?

The only way this party seems likely to support added enforcement is if it’s an even-more-obviously insubstantial cover for amnesty than the already vaporous provisions of the Gang of 8 bill.

3. Meanwhile, the GOP base has moved in the other direction: Trump may not have accomplished much on immigration — no legislative victories, a massive breakdown at the border. But he has given Republican voters permission to move decisively against the Establishment wing of their party, the Bush-backed wing that supported comprehensive reform. Polls confirm this shift—39% of Republicans now say immigration is “the most important problem facing the U.S. today.” (The runner-up is health care—with 13%.) You’re not going to find all that many GOP congressmen brave enough to support any kind of amnesty, even one wrapped in enforcement spending. Nobody wants to be primaried.

All this would seem to leave the “comprehensive” amnesty-for-10-million debate in a zero-sum posture. Like some other issues (e.g. ‘Does the Constitution protect abortion?’) there’s no more space for compromise. Either we’ll have a continued impasse or one side will win — transforming the country in one direction or the other.