During crises, American politics are sometimes capable of showing us their best. In the case of the near complete implosion of the housing market and collapse of financial institutions, Washington figured out a way to intervene, directly, and set the nation on a long road to recovery. Imperfect and incomplete as it was, the crucible of this crisis seemed to clarify minds, clearing out parochial concerns.
The humanitarian crisis on our southern border, where a wave of thousands of Latino children are pouring into America's Southwest, will not be one of those times. It will, most likely, re-affirm that comprehensive immigration reform is dead in the United States — if politics hadn't already killed it. The chances that the president, Speaker John Boehner, anti-government conservatives, labor unions, liberals, and others will use the existential urgency of the crisis — often a huge motivator — to pull together a solution to this hard problem are exceedingly unlikely. If The Week were FiveThirtyEight, I would come up with a complicated formula that pegged the chance of reform at 5 percent.
The surge in young refugees to the Texas border and the U.S.'s inability to process and return them reflects a number of political choices American politicians have made, loosed into a world with opportunistic traffickers, social media scare tactics, and genuine street violence and chaos in Honduras and El Salvador. No question, President Obama's executive discretion and global signaling has played a role. DHS worked to deport undocumented criminals; it become noticeably more friendly to undocumented kids. The expectations for immigration reform, along with the expected amnesty for current undocumented immigrants, certainly strengthened this magnet even more.
The situation actually argues for comprehensive reform — at least in a world where politics and political tribalism matter less. But we don't live in that world.
Immigration reform has been possible only when Republicans calculate that the political shifts it engenders won't hurt them too much, because the influx of Latino — and largely Democratic — voters will almost certainly disable the party in the long term (even though the number of new voters would be a lot more modest than most anticipate). Reform died when it became clear that the conservative base would not stand for it. Deal-making with Obama is about the last thing that Boehner can do.
Often, hard problems like this don't come with ready-made solutions. In this case, there's broad agreement on what a solution would look like
—Some form of certification and recognition for the undocumented immigrants already here, although not citizenship, penalties applied, but their contributions welcomed.
—Special and deferred action for kids who were brought here by their parents.
—Real enforcement triggers, combined with a modernization of the immigration processing system, which is horribly underfunded and does not attract the best and the brightest to its ranks.
—Sensible guest worker, student visa, and tourist visa reforms, most of which are relatively uncontroversial.
Overnight, there would be little change. The government would still have to spend a lot of money, eventually, to deal with the aftermath of decisions taken and not taken over past five years. But clearing up confusion about the current system is probably the single most important way to prevent surges like this one.
That won't happen. Republicans will use this crisis to blame Obama's enforcement preferences and turn out anti-establishment midterm voters. Liberal groups will try to stop the White House from deporting the tens of thousands of children under any circumstances. One side might have a more moral case for their position than the other, but both will effectively close the casket until the next president's first term.