Common Sense Unlikely to Prevail in American Immigration Debate

Democrats are moving to the left while Republicans have moved to the right.

The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, New York, November 5, 2013
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, New York, November 5, 2013 (Kostas Kokkinos)

The two parties in the United States compromised last week to pass a $4.6 billion bill to relieve the crisis at the southern border.

The left wing of the Democratic Party had resisted the deal, fearing that some of the money might be used to fund President Donald Trump’s family-separation policy. But House speaker Nancy Pelosi argued that the children — some of whom have gone without medication and even basic sanitation while separated from their parents — must “come first”.

At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available.

It’s a fair compromise. Don’t expect more of it.

Polarization

Nearly all the Democrats running for their party’s presidential nomination are in favor of decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States, ending the deportation of undocumented migrants and even providing them with public health insurance.

There are fair arguments to be made for these proposals. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s capacity is limited, so it makes sense for them to prioritize finding and deporting illegal aliens who have committed a crime. If somebody turns up at a hospital without ID but desperately in need of medical attention, are you going to turn them away?

But the cumulative effect of these policies — at a time when border crossings are rising — is something at least close to what right calls “open borders”.

Republicans have gone the other way. Center-right thinkers like Andrew Sullivan and the editors of National Review may favor legal, regulated immigration, but the nativists in the Trump Administration do not. Their goal is not to reduce illegal immigration but immigration, period.

Middle ground

The vast majority of Americans — a record 75 percent, including 65 percent of Republicans — believe immigration is good for the country. Only 29 percent say it should be reduced. (4 percent apparently want less of a good thing.)

But 77 percent also say it is important to control the border. Only a third (PDF) of Americans believe the border is secure. A majority thinks too little is being done to prevent people from entering the United States illegally.

It’s not hard to see the contours of a compromise here: stop illegal immigration at the border while expanding avenues for asylum and legal immigration.

That would require such things as reform of the visa system, which favors family reunification over high-skilled immigration, and investment in understaffed immigration courts, which hear asylum cases. But few politicians in either party are running on that.