Opinion writer

As immigration policy hangs over the ongoing conflict over whether the government is going to remain open, there’s something missing from this discussion, something so fundamental that it’s quite remarkable that we all seem to have forgotten to even ask about it. The president is demanding his border wall, Democrats are fighting against him, and occasionally we bring up issues like the fate of the Dreamers and those here under Temporary Protected Status.

But what nobody asks is this: What kind of immigration system do we actually want?

Not what might happen in the next negotiation or what each side would be willing to give up, but what does each side see as the ultimate goal they're working toward? If they could look forward ten or twenty years and say "This is where we should get to," what would that look like?

It's a vital question, because whatever we're doing at the moment should be guided by our long-term goals. Once we understand what those goals are, we can think more clearly about where we should go after we get this whole shutdown ridiculousness behind us. And we all ought to be able to agree that there is some future we're trying to arrive at, a point at which we have a system that works to our satisfaction and immigration isn't something we're constantly at each other's throats about.

That may not be possible, but I'll start with what liberals would like to see. There are certainly disagreements not just on the left generally but among immigration advocates as well, but there is a basic vision one can identify.

The first thing they want, of course, is to take the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who are in the country now and give them a path to citizenship. That’s something even some Republicans agree with, and if you put requirements like learning English and paying back taxes on it, support becomes nearly universal.

Second, liberals would like to see an expansion of the legal immigration system, which is a consistent source of frustration and a driver of illegal immigration. When it can take decades to get approved to move to the United States, of course many people are going to opt for the illegal route, even if it can be dangerous and uncertain. If the legal immigration works, people will go through it and not around it.

And if you have a well-functioning legal system, you can make illegal immigration less attractive, with things like an E-Verify process that makes it harder to find work if you're undocumented. There may always be some kind of black market for workers, but if you're simultaneously offering people a legal path — both toward permanent residency and with temporary work visas for people who are looking only to make some money and then return to their home countries — it will be much smaller problem.

So in the liberal vision, we might end up with about the same number of immigrants coming into the country as we have now, it's just that the overwhelming majority would be coming legally. We'd have security at the border, but we wouldn't need ICE breaking down doors and tearing parents from their children's arms. We'd have a robust system to evaluate asylum claims so we wouldn't have to be throwing people in cages. We certainly wouldn't pretend that one day there will be no more demand in the labor market for immigrant workers.

There are many Republicans who could be okay with that future, even if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted. But the conservative vision is complicated. For years, we heard Republican politicians say, “I’m for legal immigration. I’m against illegal immigration.” They may not usually have been advocating significant increases in legal immigration, but it’s important to remember that the current venomous hostility toward immigrants was not always the standard Republican position. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both far friendlier toward immigrants than Donald Trump is.

Conservatives might disagree with this characterization, but as I see it, their ultimate goal is a system in which coming into the country illegally is utterly impossible, but levels of legal immigration don’t change much. In other words, we still have immigration, but the flow slows to a trickle. And the Trump administration is making attempts to drastically reduce legal immigration. With the president’s enthusiastic support, domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller is driving a nationalist agenda that seeks to drastically reduce the inflow of immigrants to the country and even looks for every possible means to deport both legal and undocumented immigrants, even if they’ve been living here for years or decades.

That's a somewhat extreme position even within the Republican Party, but it does reflect a discomfort with immigration that is common on the right. It's the cultural problem, the fact that many people just don't like having contact with people who don't look like them or don't speak the same language they do or eat the same foods they do. Trump very skillfully played to that discomfort by essentially telling voters he could wind back the clock to the time when they were young, before all this disconcerting change happened. His targets were the people who say "I don't recognize my country anymore," and when he said he would make America great again, "great again" meant "like things were when you were young."

That's a demand that can never be satisfied, even if it's only a portion of the Republican electorate that really dreams of an America where there are almost no new immigrants and most of those who are already here just disappear. Unfortunately, that portion currently not only controls the White House but exercises a veto over any attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, because the rest of the GOP is so terrified of them.

Which is why it’s highly unlikely that we’ll achieve such reform, even reform most Republicans could live with, without both houses of Congress and the White House in Democratic hands. But that will happen sooner or later. Then we’ll see if we can get closer to a solution that everyone can live with over the long run.