What makes immigration deals so hard

Increased partisanship and decreased trust among lawmakers have made reforming immigration harder than ever – even as pressure to fix the problems in the system has grown.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Activists with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights protested outside the office of House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California Jan. 18. Rigid divisions around immigration reform has Washington locked at a standstill.

Rabbis protesting on Capitol Hill. A president facing accusations of racism. And lawmakers from both parties risking a government shutdown amid calls from their base to refuse the other side’s demands.

This is the state of the nation’s capital as Congress stares down a deadline to approve funding for government operations. 

The issue at the heart of the chaos: immigration. Specifically, a deal that offers a reprieve for the 700,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children and temporarily protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. The program is set to expire in March.

Democrats looking to their base find themselves under pressure to reject a spending bill – even a short-term one – that does not include a fix for DACA. Republicans, who hold majorities in both the House and the Senate, are split over whether or not to provide so-called Dreamers some protections in exchange for reforms, like tighter border security measures, that their constituents have long called for. In the middle are legislators seeking unlikely support for a compromise.  

The standoff highlights Congress’s chronic inability to pass bipartisan legislation on immigration. Efforts during both the George W. Bush and the Barack Obama eras came close, as lawmakers on either side of the aisle recognized the need to reform the system.

But none passed. And the reasons why – growing partisanship among voters, eroding trust within Congress itself, and immigration’s continuing role as one of American society’s great contradictions – are as complicated as the issue itself.

“It’s almost like an American Rorschach test, that people read into this issue all sorts of economic, cultural, social, religious, and foreign policy perspectives,” says Daniel Tichenor, director of the University of Oregon’s program on democratic engagement and governance.

“There’s broad agreement that the system is broken right now, that we need some kind of deal to address these problems. But,” he notes, “we’ve been going a quarter-century without a serious immigration response.”

A nation of immigrants

Immigrants have always occupied a unique place in American history. Nearly every American, save perhaps the 2 percent who trace their lineage back to Native peoples, has an immigrant story in the family record. Because of that, Professor Tichenor says, “We see immigration itself as virtuous.”

Humans, however, have a natural suspicion of the unfamiliar. “New immigrants have always been seen as somehow harmful, while ‘our’ forefathers, ‘our’ immigrants, are somehow better,” says Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

That tension has ebbed and flowed depending on things like economic security and social and cultural norms. Do people feel their financial prospects are stable? To what degree is society rejecting racism and xenophobia? The answers, Ms. Brown says, often color public opinion – and political will.

“Immigrants tend to be a scapegoat for fears that people have,” she says. “That drives the politics.”

Indeed, the last significant bipartisan deal on illegal immigration to make it through Congress required lawmakers who were willing to defy public opinion and cut across divisions between and within parties. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, which former President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986, awarded green cards to about 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants at a time when nearly half of Americans wanted a decrease in immigration, and about 40 percent wanted to keep it at current levels.

That a large share of Republicans would go on to view the IRCA as a blot on Mr. Reagan’s conservative legacy – deriding it as “amnesty” that did nothing to stem illegal immigration – doesn’t diminish the herculean effort that the legislators behind the law put into its crafting and passage. The New York Times reported that Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky faced down “criticism bordering on abuse” – and lost 12 pounds – during the years he spent working on the law with Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming.

“I used to be 6 foot 7 until they kept pounding me down. Then I became 5 foot 9,” Representative Mazzoli quipped to the Times. “But I wanted to prove to the country and to the leadership that we could deal with an emotionally laden and divisive subject in a way that brought credit to the House.”

A series of attempts – and failures

The idea of legislators quietly chipping away toward compromise on a tough issue seems almost fanciful in today’s era of feverishly partisan politics. Divisions on a range of issues – not least immigration – between Democrats and Republicans reached a 25-year high during the Obama years, according to the Pew Research Center. The gap has only grown since, and is reflected in the representatives the public elects and how they deal with matters on the Hill, political observers say.

“We elect the reddest of the red and the bluest of the blue and we send them to D.C. and expect them to talk to each other,” says Lisa Maatz, a policy operative who has worked in Washington for two decades. “If any compromise puts you at risk of being primaried, then where’s the incentive to do the work?”

For immigration in particular, the result has been a series of attempts – and failures – at sweeping reform.

In 2005, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona introduced a bipartisan comprehensive reform bill that petered out when it couldn’t be reconciled with an enforcement-only version in the House. Another bid, in 2007, created a path to legal status and a new temporary worker program in exchange for tighter border measures. The effort died in the Senate in the face of unrelenting criticism from the far right.  

The last major attempt at immigration reform took place in 2013, when the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” passed legislation that would have shored up border security and revamped the legal immigration system while crafting a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants. The bill never made it to a vote in the House.

So many failed negotiations threaten to turn immigration into a political no-go zone and make real reform – already a tough ask – increasingly difficult to achieve, says Sarah Binder, professor of politics at George Washington University and senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution.

“These deals that require you to understand what the other side wants become harder the less and less you trust the other side,” she says.

A narrow deal

DACA was supposed to be an answer. Instead of attempting to overhaul the whole system, lawmakers thought they could strike a narrow deal that provided both legal status for Dreamers – a sympathetic population even to many conservatives – and funding for border security measures (i.e., President Trump’s wall). A compromise on this single front could have served to restore public confidence in Congress’s ability to legislate and pave the way for future talks on broader immigration reform, political analysts say.

But the more extreme forces that have stalled past negotiations not only remain at play; they’re more influential than ever.

“The base of each party cares intently about different aspects of the deal, keeping them from solving the problem,” Professor Binder says.

Compounding the situation is an unpredictable president who swings, by the day, from expressing support for bipartisan efforts to standing solidly with the conservative base that elected him, critics say. Alleged comments that Trump made last week about immigrants have also led to public accusations of racism, casting a further pall over the negotiations.

“You can either have a president who sets a moral tone, who sets restraints around what members of Congress can say or do, or you can have a president who unleashes this kind of hostility,” says Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.

Congress remains gridlocked on the issue, even as Friday’s deadline to send the president a spending bill looms. Still, some are holding out for a happier ending. Addressing reporters on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said that Congress already knows what it needs to do: protect Dreamers and secure the border.

“So it’s not going to end poorly – it's going to end well,” he said. “The public is demanding for us to get our act together up here.”

“When [Congress] decides that what needs to get done is more important than scoring points or the politics of the day, they can come together,” Brown adds. “But it’s going to require leadership.”

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