Are Republicans Picking the Right Immigration Fight?
It hasn’t yet lasted “months or even years,” but the country is now experiencing the longest continuous partial shutdown of the federal government on record. President Donald Trump wants Democrats—the majority party in the House and a big enough minority to filibuster successfully in the Senate—to fund his proposed border wall. So far, they are not budging.
Trump famously said on camera in a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he was “proud” to assume the “mantle” of a shutdown that had resulted from Democratic border intransigence. That, combined with the fact that Republicans could conceivably have had this fight when they controlled both houses, is why polls show the public blaming the GOP for the current impasse. But Democrats could also easily reopen the government by agreeing to fund a couple billion dollars’ worth of fencing and other border security measures they already support and letting Trump call it another “down payment” on the wall.
Which raises the question of what brought us to this point. Immigration is among the core issues that powered Trump’s presidential campaign. Unlike his predecessors in both parties, he has given genuine restrictionists a place at the table when Congress has discussed policy changes. Yet the biggest immigration-related fight of the Trump administration has been over the kind of border barriers Democrats until recently backed as a selling point for “comprehensive immigration reform.” That means amnesty plus increased legal immigration alongside more money for Border Patrol agents, fences, virtual wall technology, and other security measures.
Deterring illegal border crossings has taken on new importance, as the unauthorized entries have gone from being predominantly adult males, who could be sent home relatively quickly, to mostly families and unaccompanied children. Many in the latter group must go through a lengthy asylum application process. In 2017, only 20 percent of these claims were granted. Physical barriers preventing crossings, along with more judges to speed up asylum adjudication, could help.
Still, under Trump, border security has gone from a sideshow to the main event. The Republicans most closely aligned with Trump on immigration never bought into amnesty in exchange for border barriers. And Democrats lost some of their interest in border security once amnesty was no longer in play.
Even if there is partisan hypocrisy all around, Democrats have kept their eyes on the ball concerning immigration. They have gradually moved left on the issue. They increasingly regard enforcement as something to be done to those also guilty of other serious crimes, like catching Al Capone on tax charges. They would like a more lenient attitude toward the undocumented in general, and higher levels of immigration overall.
Republicans know they want immigration to be legal, but are divided on other important questions. How many immigrants should the United States admit annually? What kind of skills should they possess? How important is their economic mobility and cultural integration?
If you believe that admitting fewer immigrants with higher skills will promote assimilation and lead to more successful immigration, you probably voted for Trump. But Republicans as a whole are not sure, beyond the usual rule-of-law arguments against illegal immigration. Trump himself has been inconsistent here. Even the public safety concerns (crime, terrorism) that the president emphasizes are really more a product of non-assimilation than infiltration due to lax border security.
Many believe the Trump administration erred by not trading Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a targeted amnesty for young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, for the wall. Politically, that may be true. Substantively, there was a case for pairing DACA—which would have covered 1 million or so people—with offsetting immigration cuts elsewhere and disincentives for parents to bring their children illegally in anticipation of a future DACA.
The White House may have overreached by asking for immigration reductions for which Washington, and perhaps the country, was not prepared. They nevertheless made the first semi-serious attempt to exchange a meaningfully limited amnesty not just for border security money but also real concessions to those who want more moderate levels of immigration.
Now Trump is risking it all over the wall. It has become a symbol of both his presidency and the cause of immigration control, though even if built its contributions to both would be limited. That’s why Democrats hate it. It’s why the wall has taken on outsized importance with the portion of Trump’s base that expected him to be a different kind of Republican.
Until non-Trump voters share that sense of urgency, Democrats have every incentive to ensure that Trump’s most visible campaign promise goes unfulfilled—and immigration remains unreformed.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.