ChrisWeigant.com

Trump Could Change The Entire Immigration Debate, But Probably Won't

[ Posted Monday, August 29th, 2016 – 16:16 PDT ]

Republicans have now, by my count, missed two rather large opportunities to improve their general standing with Latino voters. Donald Trump's speech Wednesday (unless it is further postponed or even cancelled outright, of course) might just become the third big missed opportunity. This is a problem entirely of the Republicans' making, since they are caught in a spiral of trying to prove (to each other) how pure their opposition to immigration truly is. They keep redefining the ugly term they toss around (at each other) to describe apostates on the subject, and now will label anything short of deporting 11 million people as "amnesty." This is the trap Trump found himself in, all last week.

Again, this problem is entirely constructed and contained within the Republican Party. Pretty much anything the Democrats propose or support will automatically be called "amnesty," which doesn't really faze Democrats at this point (when your opponent is digging his own political grave, sometimes you just politely offer to hold his coat while he's working). But Republican politicians are terrified of anyone on the right slapping the A-word on them, and not without cause. "Getting primaried" by a Tea Party stalwart is a very real threat.

The Republican establishment tried mightily to avoid the position they now find themselves in. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, they issued a post-mortem document which suggested that maybe Republicans shouldn't demonize undocumented immigrants quite so much, if they wanted to remain a viable political party on the national level (or "have any prayer of winning the White House for the next generation," perhaps). This sage advice was heard by some in the party, but not by quite enough of them.

What followed the post-mortem was an honest attempt to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform plan that Republicans could actually vote for. The "Gang of Eight" came up with just such a plan, and it passed the Senate with a comfortable margin. This bill was then totally and completely ignored by the Republican House, where the Tea Party had more influence. The turnabout was swift, and very likely destroyed Marco Rubio's chance of winning the Republican nomination this year. Rubio, a Gang of Eight member, had initially tried to claim pretty much all the available credit for the bill the Senate passed. To hear him talk, he singlehandedly came up with the compromise (much to the annoyance of a few other GOP Gang of Eight members, it's worth mentioning). But then he realized it wasn't going to pass the House, so he flip-flopped and refused to support the very bill he was supposed to have been solely responsible for creating. Watching Rubio's shift was enough to give a political observer whiplash.

That was the first chance the Republicans blew. It would have actually doubled the size of the Border Patrol, and it would have had a very long "path to citizenship" -- one that would have taken (at a minimum) 13 long years for anyone to travel. The plan, naturally, was labelled "amnesty" by the purists in the Tea Party. The second big chance the Republicans torpedoed was perhaps the biggest danger to the Democratic position on the issue, because it sounded quite reasonable to the general public. Some crafty Republicans decided on doing a little triangulation of the Latino demographic. What they came up with was a "path to legalization" -- again, a very reasonable-sounding idea to many. Immigrants without documentation would be allowed to (eventually -- the "path" would doubtlessly have been a long one) apply for and receive legal status, which would allow them to legally work and pay taxes. They'd be legal residents, with the functional equivalent of a green card. The catch, though, would be that they would never be allowed to take the final step most green card holders take -- they would have been consigned to never being able to become citizens.

This was actually a brilliant plan, for the Republicans. If they had gotten behind it in a big way and pushed a bill through Congress, then Democrats might now be awfully fearful that Latino support could be up for grabs in future elections. But, of course, Republicans blew this golden opportunity once again, with plenty of cries of "Amnesty!" from the peanut gallery of the Tea Partiers in the House.

The brilliance of this plan might eventually be resurrected, so it is important for Democrats to understand it. There are essentially three things that a legal resident cannot do that a U.S. citizen is allowed to do: hold certain sensitive government jobs, serve on a jury, and vote. Now, the missing out on the joys of jury duty or being a spy for the C.I.A. (or whatever other sensitive job openings fall under this classification) aren't exactly big worries for most people in this situation. What undocumented immigrants instead worry about is being pulled over by a cop for some silly infraction, only to end up being deported. The weight of these fears is almost unimaginable to those who don't experience such feelings on a daily basis. How many undocumented immigrants might accept legal status as "good enough," even if the price is forever forfeiting the chance to actually participate in American democracy? The opportunity to be able to show a police officer a residency card and to be allowed a drivers' license would lift an enormous weight off the shoulders of millions. And they might even be grateful to the Republicans who allowed such a thing to happen. This is the brilliance of the GOP plan, at least as far as Democrats are concerned.

That is, if they could ever get such a thing passed. To be blunt, they can't -- because the purists in the party have (no surprise) already called such a position amnesty. Donald Trump was flirting with supporting this position last week, but now appears to have moved back into the "they've all got to go home" camp once again.

Trump's speech might represent the third blown opportunity, because if he really has gone back to his hardline position it means Republicans might see Latinos voting solidly Democratic for a long time to come. Mitt Romney only managed to get 27 percent of the national Latino vote, but Trump could easily sink a lot lower than that. Future Republican presidential candidates might struggle to even get double digits, in much the same way they currently do with African-Americans.

From where I sit, Trump has one opportunity left. I even hesitate to publicly state it, because it would be such a game-changer for the entire immigration reform debate. There is one glaring fact in the midst of all the posturing on immigration that neither party has ever adequately addressed, and that is the unacceptable backlog of immigrants -- legal immigrants -- who routinely wait decades for their paperwork to be processed. Imagine waiting in a D.M.V. line for twenty years, and you'll begin to comprehend what people who legally apply for immigration regularly face.

For any other government service, a wait time of two decades would be beyond unacceptable. But because these are immigrants (who can't yet vote), there is little political will in Washington to change things any time soon. It would require a massive infusion of resources to even begin to attack this monstrous backlog, and neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to even broach the subject in Congress.

To put it plainly: we would not have a problem with illegal immigration if our legal immigration system were not so broken. Imagine if the backlog were erased, and immigrants with a solid claim knew they would only have to wait something like three years for their paperwork to be processed. It would mean few would attempt to illegally immigrate, since the legal process wouldn't be such an undue burden.

This is why I say it could be a game-changer for Donald Trump. Only Nixon could go to China, and only someone like Trump could ever propose such a radical plan to Republicans with any hope of seeing it become reality. Trump could say in his upcoming speech something like the following:

The backlog for legal immigration is disgraceful. It's disgraceful! It can take someone two decades to enter this country as a legal immigrant, after they file their paperwork. The system is totally broken, folks. As president, I will put tens of billions of dollars into hiring people to process all this paperwork, so that the process for legally immigrating becomes a lot more humane and manageable for everyone. Within the first two years of my administration, the backlog will cease to exist. I want to see anyone with a claim to immigrate to America have their application considered within three years -- and not a day more! When this has been achieved, then I will have no special plan for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America -- they can just get in line with everyone else, knowing that their application will be dealt with in three years. I don't think three years is too long to wait, especially for someone who has been here for 10 or 15 years already. People already here will have to pay any and all back taxes, and they'll have to pay a reasonable penalty for breaking the law for so long. Hey, you broke the law, you pay a big fine, that's the way it goes. But then they'll be just as eligible as anyone else and they'll be able to go through the same process as everyone else, knowing it won't take decades before they get an answer. The real problem is the backlog, folks. Believe me. We're going to get rid of it. Problem solved!

That is what should worry Democrats, although the chances of Trump actually taking this issue on is remote enough for me to propose it to him before he actually gives his speech. Trump could change the conversation overnight on the immigration issue, and focus everyone on how broken the system truly is. He could make his "I'm a businessman" pitch by identifying a problem even Democrats never want to talk about. "I'm an outsider, I will change Washington" would fit right in with taking on the backlog head-on. Oh, sure, some Republicans would howl at spending any money in the budget, but Trump could sell the idea that they would all be "temporary jobs for the emergency," and that after the backlog was cleared, many of the jobs would disappear. A temporary hike in the budget would be a lot easier sell than spending the money every year for eternity, in other words.

Trump would even avoid the amnesty label as well. One of the few positions still accepted by the hardliners (who toss the label around with abandon at their fellow Republicans) is that the 11 million people already here should have to "get in the back of the line" and "receive no special treatment." If the only special treatment Trump is proposing is having them pay all their back taxes and a big fine, that would probably be acceptable to the hardliners. Trump would be seen as fixing the underlying problem, and after it was fixed the problem of the 11 million would essentially solve itself. If applying for legal immigration weren't such a nightmare for so many, there would be no real reason why these people wouldn't be happy (indeed, overjoyed) to "get in the back of the line." Their biggest problem with doing so now is that the back of the line means a 20-year wait or more. Remove that obstacle, and the system might just work fairly well for everyone.

If Donald Trump came up with such a plan, it would unquestionably change the entire conversation surrounding immigration reform. If the legal immigration system worked well, in a timely fashion, then the enticement of illegally immigrating would all but disappear. It'd be a true paradigm shift. The tenor of the debate would shift -- even within the Republican Party -- from throwing endless money at border controls (and walls) and repeated choruses of "Amnesty!" to questions like: "How much is this going to cost?" and "Can it be done on Trump's timetable?" Democrats would be left flat-footed, with the choice of either supporting Trump's plan or having to explain why they couldn't do so. Hillary Clinton would be left with only: "Me too! I'm for that too!" as a viable political position, which would cede the prize for leadership on the issue to Trump himself.

It would indeed be a game-changer. But Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party are quite likely to blow this latest opportunity in the same spectacular fashion as they've blown all other recent opportunities. So I'm really not all that worried that Trump will take my advice.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

22 Comments on “Trump Could Change The Entire Immigration Debate, But Probably Won't”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    Interesting idea. Very smart.

    Couple of points:

    1. Haven't you, by being perceived as a 'Liberal' to have come up with the idea, made it toxic for Trump to touch?

    2. Many illegal immigrants don't have the qualifications to pass the immigration barriers, so they would be processed quicker, but be refused at the end.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ... perceived as 'Liberal'?

    Ah, you mean 'professional Left', don'tcha? :)

    That was a little joke.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Sorry, Chris ... but, I couldn't resist. I'm not that strong. :)

  4. [4] 
    neilm wrote:

    The grammar of point 1 leaves a lot to be desired. I hope the meaning can break thru.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Meaning and humour broke thru just fine.

  6. [6] 
    Paula wrote:

    Don't offer Trump "game-changer" ideas! :-)

    This IS gonna be interesting. He tried shifting a bit last week and then scrambled back to his safe-space of no-mercy. Evidently Bannon or Conway has convinced him he needs to moderate his rhetoric on the topic to have any shot at a win so he's going to try again. How long will his newly-minted position last? Will anyone buy it while it does?

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The semi-citizens will still be living here. Fear of the other won't change.

    Semi citizens will reproduce on US soil and their offspring will be US citizens who will vote in 18 years.....

    Gratitude among the semi-citizens will be fleeting. Their children will work hard to get full citizenship for mom and dad.

    House of Reps thinks 2 years ahead.. Nativist pressure is here and now.

    The safe move for a typical Red Rep is to build the wall higher and with more razor wire. Not exactly divide and conquer, more like divide and retire in comfort. A primary challenge is a real bitch.

  8. [8] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    1. Haven't you, by being perceived as a 'Liberal' to have come up with the idea, made it toxic for Trump to touch?

    The missing word there, Neilm, is "too". Is an idea that originates from a liberal too toxic for Trump? Trump does have a unique ability to sell liberal ideas to ostensibly conservative audiences. His opposition to TPP is rooted in populism, not conservativism, which is in favor of 'free trade' agreements.

    I'm not as sure as Chris is that the hard right would buy his proposal as is, and not still insist on a "touchback" policy that would require potential citizen-candidates to return to their home countries in order to apply. On the other hand, he might have a point about illegals so desperate for a solution that they'd accept a bad deal rather than no deal at all.

    Those most annoyed by such a policy would be those immigrants who are fleeing from a terrible situation back home, and highly educated immigrants who simply wish to stay to pursue their dreams. After all, 51% of all illegal immigrants are non-mexicans, many of whom overstayed their visas. For instance, New Jersey has an almost equal percentage of illegal immigrants (8%) as California (9%) or Texas (9%).

    Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/19/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/

    Some perspective, I think is required in the argument, which largely stems from the fevered imaginations of the alt-right. 11.3 million people is about the same number of people who watched the Olympics on NBC's online streaming service this last week. More than twice as many watched Taylor Swift win a Grammy this year.

    To put it a different way, illegals make up 5.1% of the labor force, or about one-fifth the number of people who do volunteer work every day.

    2. Many illegal immigrants don't have the qualifications to pass the immigration barriers, so they would be processed quicker, but be refused at the end.

    See "educated illegals", above. I'm just not sure that statement has any basis. Apple, Google, and Microsoft would love a streamlined immigration system, for sure.

  9. [9] 
    neilm wrote:

    Balthasar [8]

    Point 1 [CW Spoiling the idea for Trump]: You are probably right. For both your reasons.

    Point 2: I'm obviously not making my self clear. Mea culpa. My point was not about the engineers and biologists waiting in line in Silicon Valley, my point was the second wave - they are the uneducated who came across the border as kids or teenagers - how do they get back in?

  10. [10] 
    neilm wrote:

    Addition to point 2: and their parents who came across with them.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm not sure I understand why Democrats should be worried ... if Trump takes this advice, I mean. Shouldn't they also be acting on this advice.

    Or, was it meant as something other than advice. :)

  12. [12] 
    neilm wrote:

    BTW CW - this article was a bit of a tour de force. You displayed an understanding of the details that is sadly missing in most of today's journalism. This is "The Economist" quality!

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    He could make his "I'm a businessman" pitch by identifying a problem even Democrats never want to talk about.

    Okay, just finished reading the piece.

    Why are Democrats so averse to talking about this?

  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Is it for the same reason they don't talk about a lot of controversial issues? Because they don't know how to explain things or lead effectively? Is that the reason?

  15. [15] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Is it for the same reason they don't talk about a lot of controversial issues? Because they don't know how to explain things or lead effectively? Is that the reason?

    Ouch. Of course not. From the 2016 Democratic Platform:

    The immigration bureaucracy is full of backlogs that result in U.S. citizens waiting for decades...

    Democrats believe we need to urgently fix our broken immigration system...

    As CW says in his piece:

    But because these are immigrants (who can't yet vote), there is little political will in Washington to change things any time soon. It would require a massive infusion of resources to even begin to attack this monstrous backlog, and neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to even broach the subject in Congress.

    In other words, Reps won't bring it up because they don't want to do anything, and Dems won't bring it up because Reps won't support anything that isn't accompanied by spiky fences with nuclear triggers. Or that costs anything.

    Has anyone worked out the cost of a 2,000 mile-long (15-25 ft high) wall with security sensors every few feet? Just wondering.

    The point of CW's article isn't that Democrats are loathe to change the system, it's that Trump could change the debate about immigration by simply supporting the huge cost of fixing it at the bureaucratic level. That would be a HUGE policy change for Republicans, and a total game changer for the immigration debate.

    But, as CW also points out, it could probably never happen. This week has shown that Immigration reform is a third rail for Trump. So we've finally found the one thing his followers won't let him get away with - common sense!

  16. [16] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    In other words, Reps won't bring it up because they don't want to do anything, and Dems won't bring it up because Reps won't support anything that isn't accompanied by spiky fences with nuclear triggers. Or that costs anything.

    And this is why we can't have nice things.

  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Unbelievable!

  18. [18] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Actually solving the problem instead of exploiting the problem. Interesting approach.
    Republicans will never accept anything that would make government work because their mantra is that except for the military government is bad.
    So here an approach that Trump could use.
    He can close down all the military bases throughout the country (the world?)and put one big military base along the Mexican border. This would have the added benefit of giving the recruits live target practice.

  19. [19] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    neilm [12]

    Spot on!

    Great article, CW!

    One thought: Do the Republicans actually WANT to fix the immigration problem; thus losing one of the best fear-mongering campaigning tools that they have come to rely so heavily on?

    They have pretty much lost the use of the "gay marriage" argument as a way to get votes. This leaves blaming the poor for the middle class' financial woes, abortion, and illegals taking their jobs as their only distractions/vote-getters.

    God forbid any of them actually try to run on their legislative records! This is why they couldn't heed the advice of the party's post-mortem report: if they don't attack these things they'd have absolutely nothing to campaign with!

  20. [20] 
    Paula wrote:

    [19] Listen: Yep!

  21. [21] 
    neilm wrote:

    [19] Listen: Exactly! What happens when they run out of somebody else to blame?

    Remember that well over 50% of the World would change places with Americans anytime when it comes to wealth, freedom, happiness, etc. - why do you think we have an immigration problem :)

    U.S.A. U.S.A. !

  22. [22] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Trump got your memo but, he didn't understand it.

Comments for this article are closed.