There Can Be No Compromise on Immigration Reform
On October 8, the White House released a list of "Immigration Principles and Policies" that President Trump says "must be included" in any legislation legitimizing President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order (DACA). Trump is cutting a deal: Congress gets DACA if Trump gets immigration reform.
The million-dollar question: is it a good deal? No, unfortunately.
Before getting into the details, it is worth briefly reviewing DACA and highlighting Trump's key demands.
Summing up DACA: President Obama signed an executive order in June 2012 that let all illegal aliens who arrived in America before they were age 16 apply for legal work permits, Social Security numbers, and driver's licenses and made them eligible for earned income tax credits. The order gives recipients most of the privileges associated with citizenship. Enrollment must be renewed every two years. Since 2012, nearly 800,000 illegal aliens have taken advantage of the program – most of them adults. Basically, DACA is renewable amnesty.
Depending upon how broadly Congress legislates on DACA, somewhere between 800,000 and 3.5 million people could be granted de facto amnesty and given a pathway to citizenship. Remember: not everyone who can enroll in DACA is enrolled. This is an enormous number of people, comparable in scale to the Reagan-era amnesty.
On the other side of the equation are President Trump's demands. In exchange for DACA, Trump wants funding for the wall (the House Homeland Security Committee has already allocated $10 billion toward the wall); an extra 10,000 ICE officers, 1,000 immigration lawyers, and 370 judges to help clear the deportation backlog; legislative penalties for "sanctuary cities"; an E-Verify system to bar illegals from the job market; passage of the RAISE Act; and a number of other minor concessions.
Of these reforms, the RAISE Act is the most significant. Very briefly, the RAISE Act is an immigration reform bill sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). The act would not only cut legal immigration into the U.S. by roughly 50 percent, but break the cycle of chain migration by giving priority to economically valuable immigrants rather than those with family connections. If passed, the RAISE Act would be the most significant piece of immigration legislation since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ushered in the era of mass migration.
It is difficult to overstate the economic benefits of the RAISE Act, which are twofold. First, the legislation would reduce overall immigration levels significantly. Second, it would better calibrate the type of immigrants arriving in the U.S.
Reducing the overall level of immigration is important because America's economy does not need additional labor. The labor market is over-saturated as is. Real unemployment remains high, and there is no sense exacerbating the problem. Furthermore, fewer immigrants would help improve working conditions and wages for U.S. citizens. This has already begun in a few locations – the logic is sound and empirically valid. And fewer low-skilled immigrants means fewer people on welfare.
The act also ensures that America gets high-quality, skilled immigrants by prioritizing people with valuable skills. This is the type of immigrants most likely to help expand the economy in the long run – immigrants whom U.S. policy should have been targeting for decades.
Trump Should Not Surrender on DACA
All that being said, President Trump should not trade DACA for the RAISE Act – nor for the other assorted goodies. Why not? It all boils down to political asymmetries.
There is little doubt that President Trump's demands are more valuable than DACA on paper: DACA would grant residency to, at most, 3.5 million people, whereas the RAISE Act would cut immigration by 500,000 people per year. Therefore, it should not take long for the benefits of ongoing immigration reduction to outweigh the one-time costs associated with preserving DACA. Furthermore, the RAISE Act would prevent a wave of chain migration in the wake of a DACA amnesty, setting aside another major concern.
However, this assumes that the RAISE Act will last. It will not, and herein lies the political asymmetry.
The Democratic Party lost the war of ideas decades ago and now depends upon immigrant voters to survive. In fact, a report from the Center for Immigration Studies shows that immigrants vote left by a ratio of at least 2:1, and the gap is widening. This has major political consequences – especially since there are now over 40 million legal immigrants in America. For example, the last presidential election Democrats won without immigrant voters was that of Lyndon B. Johnson back in 1964 (excluding Ross Perot's vote-splitting antics in 1992).
Democrats need immigration, and they know it. Should the RAISE Act pass, the Democrats will work night and day to repeal it. Eventually, they will succeed. After all, the RAISE Act is just a piece of ordinary legislation. Conversely, a DACA amnesty will not be reversible – given how bitterly divided America is over the deportation of illegal immigrants, the likelihood of successfully stripping residency or citizenship rights from amnesty recipients is basically nil. Amnesty is permanent; immigration reform is not. The same goes for just about everything else on President Trump's list – with the exception of the wall, perhaps.
There can be no deal on DACA and no compromise on immigration reform until the Democrats stop playing identity politics and begin putting Americans first. President Trump would be wise to acknowledge this.