In the lead-up to the health care reform debate, some observers argued that the White House should focus on passing smaller and more manageable pieces of legislation rather than pushing “comprehensive” reform. We may never know if this more modest strategic approach—endorsed by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel but rejected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi— might have proven more effective, and ultimately more popular, than Obama Care. But the issue of legislative method—and its efficacy in a bitterly divided, partisan Congress—is instructive because Obama faces a similar challenge on another first-term policy initiative—immigration reform—with the strong possibility that another legislative debacle could occur.
Here again, the commonsense Democratic wisdom is to push for a comprehensive” reform bill rather than to tackle the problem more modestly. In fact, the Obama-Reid-Pelosi approach to immigration reform is virtually identical to the expansive one that George W. Bush pursued so doggedly—and so unsuccessfully—in 2006 and 2007. It’s virtually DOA because it includes a sweeping legalization program for the nation’s estimated 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants at a time when the unemployment of legal workers is at record levels. At the same time, the bill doesn’t guarantee that an airtight border and workplace enforcement system will be in place to effectively control future illegal flows. If past evidence is any guide, the bill could actually make the problem of illegal immigration worse, not better.
House Republicans who decry any legalization program as an unconscionable “amnesty” aren’t budging until they see stronger immigration enforcement measures in place. And plenty of Democrats, everyone from the House caucus known as the “Blue Dogs” to the estimable Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in the Senate, aren’t budging, either. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who’s tried to work closely with Democrats on a wide range of issues, is so furious with the way Democrats handled health care reform that he’s refusing to tackle immigration reform in 2010. And yet amazingly, that’s exactly what the Democrats are considering, even if it means pushing a Democrat-only bill, which no one on either side of the aisle believes, has any chance of success.
There is a way for the two parties to avoid his cynical and destructive impasse. And that’s to do what Obama could and should have done with health care—abandon the pretense of “comprehensive” reform, and focus on a more modest package. As was the case with health care reform, there are smaller and more “digestible” pieces of immigration reform legislation that might serve as the basis for bipartisan agreement now, before the mid-term elections. Time is short, but if the two parties can reach a first-stage agreement on these less contentious items, it might make partisan gridlock a bit less likely when they resume their debate after November.
The logic of a stripped down immigration agreement is similar to what’s been debated in comprehensive reform—only the scale is much smaller. The basic trade-off is still the same: a legalization of the undocumented in exchange for improvements in enforcement. Except that we are no longer talking about a massive and largely unconditional legalization program affecting as many as 15 million people. Or an equally contentious effort to introduce a controversial guest worker program or to impose a national ID card as the “final solution” to enforcement.
Conservatives, for example, could easily agree to some of the narrow legalization schemes that Democrats have proposed in the past, such as the DREAM Act that legalizes the children of illegal aliens who migrated with their parents, and really, through no fault of their own, are now living here illegally. The bill only affects about 1.5 million people, and to qualify for a green card, it insists that applicants either go to college or join the recruit-starved US military. It makes no sense to try to send these kids back to their countries of origin that they do not know, and to lose the value of the accrued investment in their education acquired here. Skillfully presented, DREAM might do for immigration what the CHIP program has done for child welfare—build a badly needed bridge on a hotly-contested issue
Another likely candidate for GOP support is Ag Jobs, which combines a special guest-worker program for agriculture with provisions to allow these workers to transition to legal residency. It’s not really an amnesty because many of the workers “imported” under the program aren’t yet living here. And the numbers involved, as with DREAM, are relatively small—perhaps 2 million workers. Furthermore, agribusiness desperately wants and needs the program, simply to survive. Finally, in contrast to other sectors of the unskilled labor market, there is little evidence that the foreign-born workers involved are competing with native-born Americans for the same jobs. (Wages are low, and the work is simply too demanding, and dirty, except for those long accustomed to it).
What would the GOP get “in return,” for these concessions? A dramatic expansion of the “E-Verify” workplace enforcement system that currently only applies to companies that are federal contractors—a tiny proportion of the firms operating in our economy. At present, the program’s largely voluntary. So let’s make E-Verify mandatory and extend it to more US firms, especially in low-skill industries like construction and food service in which illegal immigrants typically congregate. E-Verify isn’t bug-free, but the error rate is sufficiently low that the program can be safely expanded. And it’s high time that the “nod-and-the-wink” illegal hiring system known as “employer sanctions” was mothballed—or transcended. Thanks to E-Verify that should soon be possible. And let’s continue to enhance border enforcement, which, in recent years, has shown measurable progress in reducing illegal flows.
A deal of this sort will not resolve the immigration reform debate. It’s not meant to. It merely establishes a solid foundation that both parties can agree to prior to addressing the remaining “big-ticket” items. But only a narrow legislative window remains in 2010 to address immigration reform at all, and Democrats and Republicans alike are under increasing pressure to show progress. Rather than grandstanding and pointing fingers to gain partisan advantage, the two parties should simply conclude a more modest deal. For Republicans, it’s a chance to impress Hispanic swing voters who are as concerned about immigration as they are about rising deficits and the state of the economy, and who could easily be lured into backing Democratic candidates this fall if the GOP offers no positive vision of its own. And once the GOP gains greater control of Congress this fall—which is all but certain—it will be well placed to resist the Democrats’ general amnesty plan with more constructive proposals of its own.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.