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The immigration battle Donald Trump has already won

Legal immigration has replaced “amnesty” as the core of the debate.


Remember when both parties liked legal immigration? Way back in ... 2015?

For more than a decade — ever since the Bush administration failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007 — conventional wisdom has said that Congress can’t pass immigration bills because of the “amnesty” problem. Any proposal to legalize some or all of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US would be toxic to many Republicans; any proposal without any legalization would be toxic to many Democrats.

Rahm Emanuel, who was chief of staff in the early years of the Obama White House, famously said that “immigration is the third rail of politics,” but he meant unauthorized immigration (or rather, what to do about unauthorized immigrants). Legal immigration was a tricky policy issue that business and labor fought over, but it wasn’t going to cost any votes on the Senate floor or in elections.

That era is over. In the midst of a messy Senate debate over immigration policy, it’s now clear that the most contentious question in Congress is one that’s been dormant in legislative fights for years: whether or not to cut legal immigration.

This is almost entirely the doing of President Donald Trump. Over the course of two and a half years, as a candidate, nominee, and now president, he’s turned a fringe right-wing view into the heart of the current congressional debate over immigration.

Republicans in Congress themselves might still be in denial; they still say they don’t support cutting legal immigration, even as they back bills that do just that. But the earth has shifted under their feet. Trump has taken their party in a populist, restrictionist direction that business interests, “skills-based immigration” champions, and a generation of Republican politicians never thought it would go.

Donald Trump singlehandedly changed the Republican Party’s position on legal immigration

The key insight of Donald Trump’s short political career — the one that allowed him to rocket to the top of the primary polls soon after he launched his campaign in June 2015 — was that a segment of the Republican base was hungry for a candidate that was willing to speak harshly not just about unauthorized immigration, but immigration itself.

Trump wasn’t the only person in the Republican field talking about immigration. Nor was he the only person running as an immigration hawk. But while other Republicans went to pains rhetorically to emphasize that legal immigration was good and important and part of the American dream, Trump didn’t bother.

His descriptions of Mexico “sending” over bad people could be interpreted as illegal border-crossers or immigration generally, depending on what listeners wanted to hear. He depicted would-be legal refugees as ISIS moles.

From his first proposal of a “Muslim ban” in December 2015 to his responses to terror attacks in fall 2017, he has taken the stance that the only way to prevent terrorists from entering the US is to block the paths that individual terrorists have taken to immigrate here in the past — shutting the door behind them and locking out tens of thousands of immigrants per year, or more.

When Trump launched his campaign, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was one of very few people in either chamber who were willing to attack legal immigration directly; at its end, Jeff Sessions was Trump’s incoming attorney general and former Sessions staffers were highly placed at the White House (most notably, Stephen Miller), Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security.

Trump’s election wasn’t itself enough to force congressional Republicans to adopt legal immigration restrictionism as a cause of their own. It took Trump’s actions after rolling back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September 2017, and during the months since then as Congress has had immigration hanging over his head, to do that.

In the first weeks after Trump rolled back DACA, Democrats insisted on a clean DREAM Act, congressional Republicans made vague noises about doing “something,” and Trump’s White House rolled out a several-page wish list that encompassed their entire immigration agenda.

But Trump himself (mostly via Twitter) was remarkably focused. At first, he insisted that any protections for DREAMers come with the wall. Then, after an attack, it was the wall and elimination of the diversity visa lottery. Then, it was the wall, elimination of the diversity visa lottery, and a “fix” to “chain migration” — in other words, restricting family-based immigration to the US.

Those are the four principles that Trump and leaders in both parties agreed to during a meeting in January. They’re the four “pillars” of the White House’s proposed framework — and White House officials are all but promising a Trump veto of any bill that leaves any of the four pillars out.

These last few weeks, the debate has been over how to satisfy these four demands. Democrats and moderate Republicans have sought to do it in ways that don’t cut overall levels of legal immigration — by limiting the “chain migration” pillar to relatives of people who’d be legalized under the bill, for example, or by reallocating visas from the diversity lottery elsewhere.

Conservatives, however, have rallied behind bills that make deep cuts to family-based immigration without a corresponding expansion of work-based immigration. Many of them say they don’t ultimately want to cut immigration levels, but they’re backing bills that would do just that.

The Senate could probably pass a bill tomorrow if it weren’t for the legal-immigration question

Mitch McConnell gave the Senate a week to debate immigration, and pass a bill to address the status of unauthorized immigrants facing the loss of their protections under DACA. In the first half of the week, there hasn’t been much of a debate — just a flurry of new proposals for compromise bills being floated by the same handful of senators whose previous “compromise” proposals had gone nowhere.

(From the center, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is about to propose a second bill; Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) worked on one proposal, said he’d introduce another, and is now introducing a third. From the right, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) were the lead cosponsors of bills in November and now again this month.)

It’s hard to figure out whether there are 60 votes for anything in the Senate when most of the people voting haven’t gone on the record about precisely what they do and don’t support. But even though the people doing the proposing and counter-proposing have stayed the same, the proposals themselves have evolved rapidly, to the point where there appears to be broad agreement on the two things that initially seemed like the biggest sticking points:

  • Many unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children, including not only the 690,000 facing the loss of their DACA protections but also many who did not have DACA to begin with, should be allowed to become legal immigrants and ultimately US citizens.
  • Trump should get most or all of the money he wants to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. (All three of the deals proposed this week — Grassley’s bill following the White House framework; Jeff Flake’s proposed compromise; and the compromise reportedly reached by Graham and a large bipartisan group of senators — would authorize $25 billion for a “Border Trust Fund.”)

If a bill were put on the floor this instant that included just those two things, there would still be plenty of quibbling. Republicans would probably insist on changes to policy at the border that would make it harder for unaccompanied children and families to seek legal status within the US; Democrats might insist on broadening the pool of people eligible for legalization. But it’s easy to imagine a compromise emerging.

We’ll never know for sure, because that’s the opposite of the debate happening right now. Instead of narrowing the scope of negotiation, Republicans — led by the White House — have spent the last six months opening it up to include legal immigration.

No easy answer will emerge in the next 72 hours

What Trump has proposed are radical cuts to legal immigration — the most significant changes, as his White House admits, since 1965. They raise several questions: Should overall immigration levels be reduced? How much and how quickly should they be reduced? Who counts as a member of the nuclear family? Is diversity an important value to enshrine in the immigration system, and is it fair to worry about proposals that would change America’s ethnic balance one way or another?

Is it more important to allow high-skilled workers to come on temporary visas, or to allow them to settle in the US with green cards? And will it hurt America’s ability to get immigrants to settle if they know they won’t be able to reunite their family in the US?

The irony is that Trump’s brought Republicans to a position that’s more in line with what their voters care about. A majority of Republican voters have, for years, supported legalizing DREAMers. A majority have often supported legalizing unauthorized immigrants more broadly. And the divide between “citizenship” and “legalization without citizenship” has usually been a bigger problem for Republican elected officials, worried about the composition of future electorates, than Republican voters (many of whom are leery of anything that smacks of a “guest worker” program).

But the American public has never been able to come to a consensus on overall immigration levels. A lot more people want to see immigration reduced than want to see it expanded, and it’s only very recently that keeping current immigration levels has become more popular than imposing further restrictions.


It’s fair to say that this is the debate Americans actually want Congress to have. It’s also not a debate that Congress can squeeze into a couple of days.

Congress is either going to balk at the scale of these questions, or hammer out a quick-and-dirty deal that doesn’t fully grapple with them. Neither is likely to be satisfying to the White House, or the public.