Stephen Miller, White House senior adviser for policy, departs following a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for former senator Bob Dole at the Capitol in January. (Reuters)
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

For socially conservative immigration restrictionists, it is the best of times and the worst of times. It is the best of times because the current White House shares their views. It is the worst of times because the current White House is not terribly well run and its motivations behind immigration restriction appear to be grounded in racism.

The past Sunday Ross Douthat stirred up a mess of controversy with a column suggesting that the only way for immigration negotiations to be successful is to have someone like Stephen Miller at the table:

Americans have become more pro-immigration since the 1990s, but there is still a consistent pattern when you ask about immigration rates: About a third of Americans favor the current trend, slightly fewer want higher rates, and about a third, like Miller, want immigration reduced.

And there are various reasonable grounds on which one might favor a reduction. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population is near a record high, and increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics. There are questions about how fast the recent wave of low-skilled immigrants is assimilating, evidence that constant new immigration makes it harder for earlier arrivals to advance, and reasons to think that a native working class gripped by social crisis might benefit from a little less wage competition for a while.

Douthat makes a few empirical claims that I am not quite sure I buy. That said, his op-ed was clearly written and clearly argued, and produced the desired effect of roiling the waters.

There was, of course, considerable pushback from liberals, and that pushback led The Week’s Damon Linker to blast the liberal rejection of negotiating with Miller as blinkered and undemocratic:

The increase during the intervening five decades was a product of democratically enacted policy. The liberal position amounts to saying that the U.S. should be forbidden from changing this policy, with the country locked into continuing on our current course, no matter what voters think or want.

That is an untenable position in a country that professes to be democratic — yet it is one that growing numbers of liberals are quite eager to adopt.

During the same decades when the immigrant share of the population has risen to historically high levels, immigration from Mexico has come to dominate. Where once immigrants from a large number of countries were dispersed throughout states across the nation, that is no longer the case…

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has read Linker’s column multiple times, and each time it makes less sense to me. Let’s start with the empirical claims and then move onto the democratic ones.

Empirically, Linker’s claim that “immigration from Mexico has come to dominate” does not hold up to scrutiny. There has been a net outflow of Mexicans for quite some time now. Pew’s 2015 data provides two charts that paint a radically different picture than Linker:


Both charts show the same thing: a large influx of Mexican immigrants in the 1990s that has since abated. Economist Noah Smith suggested that Linker was confusing immigration stock with flow numbers, and I suspect that this is the case. Needless to say, it undercuts the restrictionist logic.

Let’s get back to the democratic argument, however. Linker is outraged that liberals do not seem to want negotiate changes to the current immigration policy. But liberals have excellent reasons to reject any bargain with Miller on both policy and principled grounds.

On policy, what the Trump administration is proposing is a trade of offering a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients in return for draconian restrictions on legal immigration. How draconian? The Cato Institute analysis of the proposals was pretty scathing:

Members of Congress will have to flesh out the details, but in the most likely scenario, the new plan would cut the number of legal immigrants by up to 44 percent or half a million immigrants annually — the largest policy-driven legal immigration cut since the 1920s. Compared to current law, it would exclude nearly 22 million people from the opportunity to immigrate legally to the United States over the next five decades….

The effects of the White House immigration framework are similar only to two notorious pieces of legislation: the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of legal immigrants by 495,672 and 412,582, respectively. Congress saw these bills as preventing the degradation of America’s racial stock — by Italians and Eastern Europeans, specifically Jews.

The Center for Global Development also looked at the GOP’s proposals and concluded that there would be some pronounced effects on the pattern of the remaining legal immigration: “Hispanic and black immigrants would be roughly twice as likely to be barred by the immigration cuts as white immigrants.” Here’s that analysis in chart form:


These do not sound like small compromises. These sound like massive and far-reaching concessions to make in order to secure a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.

The basic problem is that the opening gambit by restrictionists is so ridiculously over-the-top that it has poisoned the negotiating process. This is not a surprising outcome. As Megan McArdle noted years ago:

There is a zone of possible agreement (known to those who study this sort of thing as the ZOPA).  You can’t negotiate your way out of that zone no matter where you start.  Nor does starting from a more aggressive bargaining point always mean that you will do better in the negotiation. It can often mean you do worse, because you poison the process.

Linker stresses that the liberal refusal to negotiate is undemocratic, but if Linker bothered to look at the polling data, he would notice that public opinion has shifted toward liberals over the past two decades (a fact Douthat acknowledges). As Albie-winner Margaret Peters noted this week over at the Monkey Cage:

Recent surveys from Gallup show that more and more Americans are happy with the status quo — or even want more immigration. As has been widely reported, a majority of Americans want to see a pathway to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants (not just dreamers) currently here. Thousands showed their support for immigrants last year when they showed up at airports to protest Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries and by turning out for pro-immigration, anti-deportation rallies.

And hey, another chart! This time, from Gallup:


So, as I understand it, the deal being offered by the Trump administration is not a good one on policy grounds, on political grounds and on public opinion grounds. These seem like solid enough reasons for no substantive negotiations with Stephen Miller.

To be clear, I agree with McArdle that Democrat expectations on immigration right now are unrealistic. But this is an argument for keeping the government open without talking about a grand bargain.

Linker gives away the game at the end of this paragraph:

Many millions of Americans do have negative opinions about such trends — and all the finger-wagging and name-calling in the world isn’t going to change that. Those millions of Americans are our fellow citizens. They will continue to vote and therefore exercise political power. Can anyone seriously believe that attempting to declare their views beyond the political pale and denying them a seat at the policymaking table will accomplish anything beyond radicalizing them further, potentially sending them outside of the existing party system to do battle with it from an even more extreme position? (emphasis added)

Read that last sentence again. After spending an entire column complaining about liberal intransigence, Linker warns that a bargain needs to be struck because, otherwise… restrictionists will be so intransigent that they will act in an extralegal manner. That dog won’t hunt.

A third of Americans want to see greater restrictions placed on immigration. Which means that two-thirds of Americans do not want such restrictions. And according to Pew, immigration is way down the list of issues that Americans believe should be a top priority for the federal government right now.

I may be just a small-town political scientist, but in most democracies that means that the restrictionists do not get to cut legal immigration by half.

Or by a quarter.

Or at all, really.