Our arguments over a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border encapsulate much of what’s wrong with American politics. The wall has become a much larger issue than it deserves to be, and the parties have been unable to make a deal over it that ought to be easy to make.
The debate is overwrought on both sides. It was a mistake for immigration hawks to become as fixated as they have on building a wall on the southern border. Even if it is completely successful in stopping illegal border-crossings, it won’t stop people from coming here legally and then overstaying their visas. Estimates of the fraction of illegal immigrants who get here that way range from two-fifths to two-thirds.
Requiring employers to use E-Verify to make sure that all new hires are legally allowed to work in the U.S., on the other hand, would reduce the incentive for both illegal border crossings and illegal overstays. The rationale for a wall would shrink.
But while the wall seems like a foolish priority, President Donald Trump has made it one of his most politically important initiatives. He has talked about it so much that his re-election really may depend on showing some results. Those congressional Republicans who roll their eyes about the wall may be underestimating how much it now matters to their party. Whether they like it or not, their political fortunes in 2020 are closely tied to his.
Given its political importance to them, you’d think that Republicans would be eager to get a bill passed that funds construction of the wall. The obvious path for passing a bill is not, as the president has once again suggested, shutting down the government until Democrats give it to him. It’s cutting a deal with the Democrats that achieves important priorities of theirs and funds the wall.
Could the Democrats accept such a deal? Their arguments against a wall are not strong. The chief liberal objections, as far as I can tell, are that the wall would be ugly symbolism and wasteful spending. That second point represents a concern about the budget so selective as to raise doubts about whether it is truly motivating much of the opposition.
Democrats have much stronger interests in other aspects of immigration policy than in blocking the wall. Getting permanent legal status for illegal immigrants who came here as children, for example, ought to be higher on any rational list of priorities. Trump has no objection to giving them that status: He claims to be for it himself.
So you can see the outline of a deal that combines wall funding and legal status for this particularly sympathetic subset of illegal immigrants. Each party would have gotten something that matters a lot to it — the legal status for the Democrats, the wall funding for the Republicans — while doing no damage to any of its important policy interests.
Democrats would have to swallow letting Trump have a political victory, but they would have one of their own as well and would continue to have many other cudgels with which to hit him in 2020.
This deal made so much sense that Senate Democrats actually offered it to Trump at the start of the year. Trump turned it down, making additional demands — most ambitiously, for a cut in legal immigration, too — that had no chance of winning majorities in Congress. Once again, the man who boasted endlessly of his deal-making ability proved incapable of applying it in Washington.
As it becomes clearer that the only way for Trump to make any progress on his wall is by giving the Democrats something, and as the re-election campaign gets closer, Trump may find himself more willing to make concessions. The Democrats will then be well-placed to make big asks of him.
But the nation’s capital has been out of the habit of legislative horse-trading for so long that even this small deal will probably prove impossible.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.