Can Trump really broker an immigration deal?
We can break the immigration impasse. Here's how.
President Trump's new immigration proposal — which would create a pathway to citizenship for up to 1.8 million people illegally brought to the United States as children in exchange for $25 billion for border security, the end of a diversity visa lottery system, and the scaling back of family-based immigration — already seems legislatively doomed. My colleague Peter Weber helpfully rounds up the criticism on the right and left:
On the right, Breitbart News called Trump "Amnesty Don," Heritage Action's Michael Needham said that "any proposal that expands the amnesty-eligible population risks opening Pandora's box" and "should be a nonstarter," and prominent immigration restrictionist Mark Krikorian said Trump "hasn't sold out his voters yet" but this proposal poses "a real potential for disaster." On the left, United We Dream's Greisa Martinez Rosas called the plan "a white supremacist ransom note" and the ACLU demised it as a "hateful, xenophobic immigration proposal that would slash legal immigration to levels not seen since the racial quotas of the 1920s."
But is it really?
I'm not so sure. In fact, I think it remains quite possible that two seemingly opposed Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — could help Trump strike a new compromise that could actually pass the Senate and House.
Graham has been more effusive. "President Obama tried and couldn't fix immigration. President Bush tried and couldn't do it,” the colorful lawmaker said in a statement after Trump first said he supported a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants. "I believe President Trump can. Today's DACA recipients can be tomorrow's Trump DREAMers.”
The more hardline Cotton — who Graham has branded the "Steve King of the Senate" — has arguably been more effective than Graham, keeping a place at the table after Trump rejected Graham's earlier deal with the Democrats. This seems to have at least partially paid off, with limits on family-based immigration (which Graham has dismissed as having "no viability") remaining part of the president's freshly released immigration proposal.
Graham has repeatedly suggested that Republicans with Cotton's immigration views shouldn't be part of these immigration talks. Only by having Graham and a bipartisan working group of legislators who are basically on the same page concerning immigration could there be a breakthrough, he suggests.
Why? It is precisely this approach that has repeatedly failed to yield an immigration deal that actually becomes law. No matter how many times the Senate passes "comprehensive immigration reform" with more than 60 votes, the final product has no credibility with House Republicans or rank-and-file GOP voters.
Trump has done many things wrong in the immigration debate, but this is one thing he has gotten right. He has actually brought people together, including immigration restrictions, to talk about how to solve this problem.
For the past 13 years, these talks have been bipartisan. But they have mostly taken place between people who are fundamentally in agreement on immigration: Ted Kennedy and John McCain, Chuck Schumer and Marco Rubio, Robert Menendez and Jeff Flake, Dick Durbin and Graham.
Under Trump, all those usual suspects play a role. But so do Cotton, Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue, and other restrictionist lawmakers and White House aides whose perspectives are clearly part of the debate but have been excluded from the discussion for years.
Trump's approach has already had one obvious effect. Since the early 2000s, immigration hawks have defined themselves by opposing "amnesty" — any legalization whatsoever for a significant population of undocumented immigrants. The Trump framework by that definition contains an amnesty. And Cotton and and many restrictionists in Congress have agreed to amnesty for the DACA recipients up front. They have continued to support it when Trump morphed it into a pathway to citizenship. They have held firm after the population potentially gaining legal status swelled from 700,000 to nearly 2 million.
That's a bigger concession than a lot of people seem to recognize. The traditional restrictionist position has been they amnesty must come last, if ever. Only after the border has been certified secure or a series of enforcement benchmarks have been met; after the illegal immigrant population has been reduced through attrition by as much as possible; at some other future point.
One of the reasons so many Republicans are angry about immigration in the first place and so skeptical of these plans is that in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that was supposed to pair amnesty and enforcement. The amnesty arrived quickly and was permanent, the enforcement was halting and short-lived. That bait-and-switch has poisoned immigration talks ever since.
The present moment would offer an opportunity to move past this impasse, were it not for the two parties moving in opposite, extreme directions. Gallup has found that the gap between Democrats wanting more immigration and Republicans wanting less has been at least 30 points since 2016. Just less year, Democratic preference for less immigration dropped by 20 points.
Maybe the GOP immigration hawks will overreach, demanding virtually the entire restrictionist agenda as their price for DACA. And Democratic votes, still needed in the Senate, will remain hard to come by.
But if this stalemate is ever to be broken, immigration talks between the likes of Cotton and Graham seem worth a try. Elements of the White House framework suggest it is possible.