After the experience of the past two weeks, it’s not White House adviser Stephen Miller and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton who should be expelled from immigration negotiations, but Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham.
The Illinois Democrat and South Carolina Republican teamed up for a comically inadequate immigration proposal that prompted President Donald Trump’s “s***hole” blowup and then Chuck Schumer’s shutdown overreach.
The Durbin-Graham offer was advertised as a bipartisan compromise, which it was — among a group of six Republican and Democratic senators who broadly agree on immigration. Only in Washington would this be hailed as a major breakthrough and the statesmanlike way forward.
To his credit, Graham long ago concluded that Trump isn’t going anywhere, and it makes sense to try to have more influence over him, rather than less. His mistake was attempting to assimilate Trump into an elite consensus on immigration that the president ran straight into the teeth of, and won.
The potential scale of the Durbin-Graham proposal isn’t appreciated. The Migration Policy Institute estimated the population that would meet the minimum threshold for age at arrival and length of residence under the 2017 Graham-Durbin DREAM Act as 3.2 million, with the bill’s education criteria winnowing the population to 2.1 million.
The details of the latest Durbin-Graham proposal are sketchy, but the number of Dreamers eligible could easily be more than 2 million. On top of this, Durbin-Graham wants to give DACA-style work permits to the parents of Dreamers, perhaps doubling the number of people getting a de facto amnesty to 4 or 5 million.
This is bigger than the 1986 amnesty that initially covered 2.7 million people, and at least half the proposed Gang of Eight amnesty for an estimated 8 million. In exchange, Durbin-Graham offered no meaningful changes on chain migration, a repurposing rather than a real end to the visa lottery and a pittance at the border.
If Trump had signed on to this, he might as well have declared everything he said about immigration in the campaign null and void. The question in the weeks ahead is whether the Trump presidency truly represents a breakthrough in immigration policy or not.
The basic, problematic physics of immigration deal-making remains unchanged: Illegal immigrants receive some sort of legal status immediately, while any new enforcement, whether a wall or other systems (say, E-Verify for employers), inevitably phases in over time. Immigration hawks are rightfully mindful of this disparity given the long history of broken promises on enforcement.
The worry is especially stark with Trump’s wall. It would be a massive government infrastructure project, with all the potential for delays and cost overruns that implies.
This is why the shrewd play for the Democrats is to complain and resist, and then at the end make a theatrical concession on the wall. Schumer did exactly this prior to the government shutdown.
For Trump’s part, the opposite is true. He’d be smart to insist on his wall above all else, and then at the end, reluctantly accept other priorities. The wall won’t be a game-changer at the border, where security has already become more robust; in fact, absent more resources for immigration authorities and tightened rules around asylum and the influx of migrants arriving from Central America, it might not make much difference.
That’s why Trump should focus on getting those changes, as well as an end of the visa lottery and a curtailment of chain migration. These would represent the first real tightening of legal immigration in decades.
The likeliest outcome is no DACA deal and a continued stalemate. But if there is going to be a Senate agreement acceptable to immigration hawks and doves alike, it will go through the center-right, i.e., the Republican caucus and the Democratic moderates who undermined Schumer’s shutdown gambit.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Trump blasted away at the lazy conventional wisdom on immigration with a blunderbuss; getting something to show for it legislatively will now require some deftness and guile.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.