A test of the new president’s core appeal for civility is upon us: the debate about comprehensive immigration reform.
We have twice been around this course before. Efforts were made to produce such a measure in both 2006 and 2013. It is easy to confuse the various “gangs” and coalitions that swirled around proposals in the House and Senate both times. Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama supported an effort, and even the early months of the President Donald Trump era saw some negotiations on the subject. All failed.
All were marked by drawn, and very sharp, rhetorical swords. That’s because each side has a “nonnegotiable” that the other side refused to recognize.
For a critical mass of Republicans, the issue is simply put: No wall, no deal.
For a critical mass of Democrats, the issue is simply put: No path to citizenship, no deal.
Those are the two requirements for any reform package. That’s the reality. The length of the wall is up for negotiation — some of the southern border is impassable by any means — but not its size and shape. Speed bumps won’t cut it.
A path to citizenship is the must-have for Democrats. There are between 11 and 20 million people in the country without legal status. Democrats (and many Republicans) want a process by which these immigrants can first become eligible for legal status and then seek citizenship unless they have been convicted of a violent offense. Details abound here, but the must-have is the clear path.
The new president has sketched out a proposal. It rejects any additional wall. It demands an eight-year path to citizenship. I asked the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, if the president’s framework was an opening bid or a bottom line. “If it’s a bottom line,” Baker replied, “then it will not go through.”
Can each side compromise and concede on the must-have of the other and get to work? It would make sense. It would make a wonderful bipartisan effort. And it would demonstrate that compromise on thorny issues is indeed possible.
It would benefit the tens of millions of American citizens who are connected by family, friendship and work to undocumented immigrants and would benefit the immigrants as well. It would be good politics because it is good policy. But only if the border is secured in a way that projects certainty that entry to the United States is driven by law, not coyotes and cartels.
Republican opponents will rightly point to the inevitable “magnet effect” of any path to citizenship, arguing that it will only encourage people to come to the United States without permission or overstay their visas in hope of obtaining legal status. But this can be worked out in a comprehensive bargain that addresses both sides’ concerns. A completed wall, continued resourcing of the Border Patrol, and increased security at ports and tracking of visa-holders would send a different message. Technology has improved. The sieve can be closed.
Eight years will seem radically short to people who have come in via legal processes that can last twice as long. Theirs is a complaint based on the injustice of their circumstance and can only be met by an argument about the common good.
If each must-have is conceded by the other side, this third time could be indeed be the charm. Perhaps the conversation could be conducted in a fact-based, rhetorically subdued tone marked by deliberation and give and take, not performance-art politics.
If the new president were to signal his was an opening bid and not a take-it-or-leave-it offer, that would be an action fitted to his fine words.