The White House showdown between President Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Minority Leader (but soon-to-be House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made for great television. But theater is all it was, because there's no real deal to be had on the border wall.
Trump's border wall was perhaps his signature campaign promise. On Tuesday, he said he'd be willing to shut down the government if he doesn't get the $5 billion in funding he so desires in order to build the wall, and would gladly assume "the mantle" of such a shutdown. In doing so, he may have backed himself into a corner. To Democrats, the wall symbolizes everything they despise about Trump's immigration agenda, and they believe their incoming House majority constitutes a repudiation of the president's rhetoric about the border. So Democrats are unlikely to give in on the funding, and if Trump is willing to own the shutdown, they're even less likely to budge.
The good news is that there's a better way for Trump to enforce immigration laws than by building the wall. He should put the responsibility of immigration enforcement primarily on employers, not the undocumented immigrants themselves. He should impose the employer sanctions already enshrined in law and use E-Verify or another reliable system to help ethical businesses screen out illegal hires. And he should fine violators.
By accepting this route, Chuck and Nancy could help redirect resources away from the images of raids, deportations, and family separations that so enrage their base, without embracing a radical policy of non-enforcement verging on open borders. This provides another opportunity for Democrats to demand fair play from businesses who shortchange American workers and exploit immigrants. And for Trump, it is a kinder, gentler way of delivering on his immigration-related campaign promises, especially as visa over-stayers grow as a percentage of the undocumented population relative to those crossing the border illegally.
As a libertarian-leaning conservative, I don't love the idea of E-Verify. It could be improved, especially in terms of accuracy. But such methods are among the least coercive means of achieving interior enforcement of the country's immigration laws. Mitt Romney got a bad rap on the idea of "self-deportation," not least from Trump himself, and even though it is an awkward phrase, it's certainly more humane than the ICE-centric version of deportation.
True, some Republicans might object to targeting business as part of immigration enforcement. But Trump is supposed to be a different kind of Republican, more pro-worker and populist. He has already delivered substantial deregulation for businesses, even as he has been willing to alienate them with tariffs. What he hasn't done is make comparable progress on immigration.
Employer sanctions were a key part of the deal that granted legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants in the 1980s. But those sanctions have only periodically been enforced, which is a major reason why "amnesty" became so unpopular with voters concerned about illegal immigration. Trump and Democratic congressional leaders could spearhead a bipartisan push to revive the sanctions. A meaningful provision to this effect could also create openings for a deal on Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Voters approve of this idea: Requiring employers to verify that their workers are in the country legally had nearly 80 percent support in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. In the same survey, just 37 percent said they wanted to see a border wall built.
Sure, this solution wouldn't resolve all immigration-related disputes, such as whether current law is too permissive or too strict, whether current legal entries are too high or too low, or whether skill-based immigration or family reunification should be the higher priority. But Republicans have to remember that any other solution is unlikely. Democrats coming to Congress in January weren't elected to compromise with Trump — and progressives are already suspicious of their party's leadership — while most Republicans weren't sent to Washington to cut deals with them. Pelosi in particular must protect her left flank; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy must watch out for the right.
The failure to work out something this obvious on immigration will send an unmistakable message that even under Trump, Washington Republicans are more interested in cheap labor, and that Democrats are continuing to move left on the issue in anticipation of the fast approaching 2020 elections.
A deal on immigration can — and must — be made. This might be the best shot.