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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.
President Joe Biden’s proposal to overhaul the immigration laws could hardly be worse as a means of creating bipartisan consensus in Congress. It works as a way to keep the Democratic coalition happy, but not to get anything done.
The party’s most vocal activists on immigration think they got short-changed the last time a Democratic president took office. In 2009, President Barack Obama had a solidly Democratic Congress but did not push to give legal status to illegal immigrants. By the time he made it a priority, the Democratic majority had vanished. Obama was able to suspend enforcement of some immigration laws, but not to change them.
Biden has heard the complaints. He also knows that his party has been turning against immigration enforcement. And so his early moves have been to call a halt to deportations, stop building a wall at the border, and propose a bill that combines a sweeping legalization of undocumented immigrants with small increases in legal immigration.
This is not going to pass Congress. The last time Congress came close to enacting immigration legislation was in 2013, when 14 Senate Republicans and 54 Democrats supported a more modest reform bill. It failed because most Republicans, who at that time ran the House of Representatives, objected to giving legal status to illegal immigrants, at least without stronger efforts to prevent illegal immigration in the future.
Republican support will be less forthcoming this time. The new proposal has much less to attract Republicans than the old one did. Republicans have also, in the interim, made their own shift on immigration, moving in the opposite direction from the Democrats. Only five of the Republicans who backed the 2013 bill are still in the Senate, and two of them — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida — have criticized Biden’s plan.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican often discussed as a possible presidential candidate for 2024, is already leading opposition to it. “We should never support an amnesty-first, enforcement-never bill that also vastly expands the number of guest-worker visas for foreign workers to come and take American jobs,” he tells me. He believes the bill is too flawed to provide even a basis for negotiation. The lesson he draws from the immigration legislation of recent decades is simple: “You always get the amnesty or the expanded immigration and you hardly ever get the enforcement.”
The tragedy of Biden’s choice is that even in today’s polarized politics, a bipartisan deal on immigration ought to be possible. Republicans are open in principle to providing legal status for some illegal immigrants. Cotton himself sponsored legislation to legalize those who came here as minors. Democrats, for the most part, have not shut the door to requiring employers to verify that new hires are legal.
A deal that included both measures — legalization for a large share of the illegal-immigrant population and enforcement focused on employers — might have a chance of breaking the decadeslong impasse on immigration. Republicans would then have less fear that legalization would be followed by more illegal immigration and then another round of legalization in the future.
Democrats, meanwhile, would have less fear that enforcement-first would mean legalization-never. In addition to being worthwhile legislation in its own right, such a bill could boost confidence enough that progress could later be made on other aspects of immigration — such as changing the legal-immigration system to put greater emphasis on skills, and providing legal status for other illegal immigrants who have put down roots here and contributed to our country.
It’s a legislative strategy that would showcase what Biden considers a great strength of his: that he can broker deals on seemingly intractable problems. Instead, he has chosen what amounts to checking a box for his supporters while fundamentally altering nothing. He is setting up a debate that lets Democrats portray Republicans as hostile to immigrants while Republicans fire back that Democrats are weak on enforcement.
It’s a plan, in short, to deepen our country’s political polarization over immigration.