For a moment, it looked as though 2018 might be the year that ended a three-decade streak of failure to pass so-called “comprehensive immigration reform.”
On Jan. 11, a bipartisan group of six senators brought forth a plan for comprehensive reform that would include $2.7 billion for border security, a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” brought to the country without authorization as children, a limit on those Dreamers sponsoring their parents for citizenship and a reallocation of “diversity visas” to immigrants with recently terminated Temporary Protected Status visas.
Prospects for the deal have dimmed since President Donald Trump, who had previously expressed sympathy for Dreamers, abruptly torpedoed it. But the rudiments of a workable deal are still in place. If it ends up succeeding, it will be in no small part because it sidesteps the one issue that has deadlocked comprehensive reform since the 1990s: undocumented immigrants.
The only remotely viable path to a “comprehensive” deal, it seems, is to leave millions of undocumented immigrants who are not Dreamers out in the cold.
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The “amnesty” stumbling block
Americans of all political stripes, and their elected officials, have long agreed that the U.S. immigration system is “broken.” Yet since the last major round of reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, efforts at “comprehensive immigration reform” spearheaded by presidents of both parties and enjoying bipartisan congressional support have gone nowhere. America’s foundational laws regarding immigrants have remained largely intact since Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House. They are the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, later amended by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and the Immigration Act of 1990.
The main stumbling block has been hostility, mainly on the Republican side, to normalizing the status of millions of immigrants living in the country without permission. This hostility developed fairly recently, driven almost entirely by pressure to please a small but rabidly anti-immigrant base. George W. Bush largely escaped pressure to harden his relatively moderate positions prior to his election in 2000, and actively pursued comprehensive immigration reform as president.
But since then, serious GOP presidential candidates have increasingly had to toughen up on immigration policy in order to make it through to the general election.
The 2008 election witnessed the rebirth of Rudy Giuliani — formerly a relatively tolerant mayor of a “sanctuary city” — as a border security hawk and illegal immigration hard-liner. More notable still that year was Sen. John McCain, who was forced to back off his longtime support for comprehensive immigration.
Donald Trump, of course, launched his 2016 bid for the GOP presidential nomination by railing against drug smugglers, criminals and rapists he falsely alleged are streaming into the U.S. illegally from Mexico.
Observers understand this hostility to “amnesty” in different ways. Some see it as racially motivated, and tied to hostility against Latinos and other ethnic minorities. However, my colleague Morris Levy and I have shown in our research that much of it is tied to deep conceptions about the rule of law. By this logic, roughly one-third of Americans, according to our study, reject undocumented immigrants categorically. That is, they reject them solely on the basis of breaking the law, without regard to ethnicity or other characteristics.
Narrowing what “comprehensive” means
It’s no surprise then that, of late, the debate has devolved exclusively to address the fate of Dreamers. As some of our work indicates, Dreamers do not provoke the intransigent hostility that other undocumented immigrants do. They are less likely to be viewed as “law-breakers,” and more likely to win support on humanitarian grounds.
In effect, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have been written out of immigration reform altogether. The more limited deal in circulation would give Democrats a “win” with respect to illegal immigration, even if it is less than the total victory they have long sought. The concessions they offer in return — limited funding for border security, some effort to limit so-called “chain migration,” and the redirecting of “diversity lottery” visas to some immigrants previously on temporary status — are not uncontroversial. However, none is likely to generate anything like the reaction “amnesty” produces among categorical opponents of illegal immigration.
Can those undocumented immigrants hope for reprieve down the line?
There is precedent for large-scale amnesty: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 legalized nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for relatively weak enforcement provisions. But given the uniquely intransigent positions taken on both sides of the issue, it is hard to imagine another such bill in the offing any time soon.
Matthew Wright is assistant professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C.