The Art of the Immigration Deal


2018-01-23 /

…Immigration did more than any other issue to mobilize the coalition that brought President Trump to power. It was the principal theme of his announcement remarks and the emotional heart of his campaign rallies. A “big, beautiful wall” along our border with Mexico was—and remains—his most memorable promise.

Along with 60% of Americans, I regard a major expansion of the wall as a wasteful and ineffective means to the widely agreed-upon end of border security. In a survey the Pew Research Center conducted last week, only four out of 21 groups gave majority support to a wall—white evangelical Protestants (65%), white Catholics (55%), whites with a high school diploma or less (57%), and Americans age 50-64 (50%). This is a good X-ray of the president’s remaining base as his administration enters its second year.

In all, only 37% of Americans think adding a substantially expanded wall on the southern border is a good idea. But we have reached a point at which the sentiments of the majority are politically secondary. It is unimaginable that Mr. Trump will break faith with his supporters on this matter. Any deal, broad or narrow, will have to acknowledge this reality.

… Seventy-four percent of Americans endorse granting legal status to immigrants brought here illegally as children, with 21% opposed. The measure has majority support from every group in the electorate—including Mr. Trump’s core supporters and Republicans as a whole.

The reasons are clear: Not only did Dreamers come to the U.S. through no fault or decision of their own, but this is the only country they really know. They are de facto Americans with clean legal records who want only to contribute to their country—this country. Many of them are already doing so in the private sector, nonprofit civil-society organizations, and the U.S. military. It would be self-defeating as well as immoral to expel them. The case for regularizing their status , and giving them a place in the queue leading to citizenship, is compelling.


At the same time, there is merit to the Republican argument that granting permanent status to DACA (*) recipients without fixing the flawed system that helped create this situation would be self-defeating. Seventy-two percent of Republicans support the construction of a wall, while only 24% oppose it. There can be no resolution to the DACA controversy that does not include some portion of Mr. Trump’s wall.

In principle, anyway, the way forward is clear. The immigration issue should be addressed in two stages. Phase One would be a focused bargain: regularize the status of DACA recipients while appropriating the funds needed to secure the border—with a wall where needed. As Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, has acknowledged, this agreement should include not only the young people who already signed up for DACA but also those eligible for the program who missed the signing deadline, whether from fear, negligence or lack of information. For their part, Democrats would be equally generous, agreeing to full funding for border security, not just a down payment.

Phase Two of an immigration solution would include a wider range of issues. Republicans are eager to end the diversity lottery program, enhance enforcement in the workplace, and reorient policy away from family reunification and toward a merit-based metric of individual contribution. For their part, Democrats want to regularize the status of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally and to repair arbitrary and demeaning features of the current enforcement regime. Both parties have a stake in reforms that would expand opportunities for new immigrants to learn English and acquire a basic knowledge of American history and government.

No doubt other issues would arise during a broader Phase Two negotiation. For example, Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue would push for their proposed 50% cut in legal immigration. This policy makes little sense as we enter decades in which the growth of the U.S. labor force is expected to slow dramatically. Still, these and other lawmakers would have a fair opportunity to make their cases.

Despite the deep feelings on both sides, Mr. Trump’s credibility with anti-immigration hard-liners creates an unprecedented opportunity to resolve this controversy, which has poisoned American politics for more than a decade. In this instance, the overused “Nixon goes to China” analogy makes sense. The president really has a chance to make America greater if he is willing to bite the bullet and make a deal. And the time to begin Phase One is now.


(*) The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was an American immigration policy that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals were enrolled in the program created by DACA. The policy was established by the Obama Administration in June 2012 and rescinded by the Trump Administration in September 2017. The policy was established by executive action rather than legislation; however, participating individuals were sometimes referred to as Dreamers after the DREAM Act bill, a bipartisan bill first proposed in 2001 that was the first of a number of subsequent bills in the U.S. House and Senate attempting to provide a pathway to citizenship or other legal status for certain undocumented residents who immigrated illegally as children and subsequently completed some college or military service.

In November 2014 President Barack Obama announced his intention to expand DACA to cover additional illegal immigrants. But multiple states immediately sued to prevent the expansion, which was ultimately blocked by the courts. The United States Department of Homeland Security rescinded the expansion on June 16, 2017, while continuing to review the existence of the DACA program as a whole. The entire DACA policy was rescinded by the Trump Administration on September 5, 2017, but full implementation of the rescission was delayed six months to give Congress time to decide whether to grandfather the population that was previously eligible under the policy.

President Trump has made a number of remarks about the impact of DACA on the U.S. economy, some of which have been proven false by economists. Research shows that DACA increased the wages and labor force participation of DACA-eligible immigrants ,and reduced the number of unauthorized immigrant households living in poverty. Studies have shown that DACA increased the mental health outcomes for DACA-eligible immigrants and their children. There are no known major adverse impacts from DACA on native-born workers' employment, and most economists say that DACA benefits the U.S. economy To be eligible for the program, recipients may not have felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. There is no evidence that individuals covered by DACA are more likely to commit crimes than the general population of the United States.