Over the last 20 years, there has been perhaps no issue more emotional, fraught, and hard to fix than immigration. There have been many brief periods where it looked like the stars were aligning for a solution. All have disintegrated into bickering and political backlash.
But some analysts believe that we could achieve a breakthrough this Fall, if we pursue a targeted plan aimed at groups where there is already strong consensus. And if we act immediately.
Nathan Kasai is Senior Policy Council at the Washington DC think tank Third Way, and he explained what it would look like and why it needs to happen now on the Great Ideas podcast with Matt Robison.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
How did we get where we are today?
The best analogy is to Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown. That is exactly how immigration has gone for the last few decades. Every single presidential administration has said let’s try to get it done. Bush in the early 2000s. Obama with the Senate “gang of eight.” Even the Trump administration had Jared Kushner shopping around ideas for reform. At this point, the last time we did something major on the system truly was back in the Reagan era.
How many people are we talking about?
The undocumented population is around 11 million out of a total U.S. population of about 350 million. Everyone thinks of people from Mexico, but the proportion of undocumented Mexicans has actually been declining over the past 10 years. We are increasingly seeing a lot of people who fly here on a visa and then overstay.
Did the Trump Administration’s child separation policy actually deter migration? And is the Biden administrations different approach spurring migration?
No. The really important context in this question is that migration to the Southern border is both cyclical and seasonal. Central America had a rough last year. On top of Covid, there were two fairly devastating hurricanes. Those factors are the drivers. People are being impelled to come for life-or-death reasons. So this notion that if we just got super tough or we just ramped up the cruelty factor we could deter people simply doesn’t make sense. If people are in fear for their lives, that will overwhelm the risks that the Trump administration presented.
How could we construct a breakthrough approach?
By aiming at solutions where there is already reasonable consensus .
First, there are about 780,000 “dreamers” – people brought here as children – who have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. There is bipartisan agreement that this is a very deserving group. They should be fully brought into the American system.
Additionally, we have a group called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients. There are 400,000 total. If a country has suffered a natural disaster or serious conflict, the State Department will certify that it is not safe to go back, and TPS folks can remain in the United States legally. But as conflicts and situations are becoming protracted, some of these people have been here for 10 or 20 years. They have bought homes, had kids, and started businesses. So there’s a really easy case to make their status permanent.
The third group is farm workers. We have good consensus that if they’re coming every single year and they want to settle in the U.S. permanently, that’s a good thing for this country. It is also important for agricultural businesses, who desperately need more workers. Undocumented agricultural workers make up about half of our total agricultural labor force. So it’s a pretty strong argument that we should create a deserved and earned pathway to legal status. It benefits the long-term health of our economy and our nation’s food security.
The last group is essential workers: people who worked jobs in the healthcare sector, grocery stores, or other jobs that were really critical in the last year and a half through the pandemic. We truly rely on them, and there’s a good argument that we need to be retaining them.
So part of the strategy is to be targeted…not try to solve all 11 million, but agree where we can right now. But why does it have to be right now?
Just limping along is not good enough. It’s not working for us as a country or for these people. We have the chance to improve the lives of a lot of deserving folks, both immigrants and current Americans. And this is the right political moment. It’s rare that we have a unified vision in Washington, and it could be fleeting. We could always argue that maybe we could get something else done or something even bigger done later on. But we could easily miss the chance to do the most good possible right now.
If Democrats are going to muscle this through [using reconciliation] should they be worried about the politics?
The politics of this are actually quite good for Democrats. Support for DACA consistently polls in the upper seventies. Two-thirds of Americans agree that there should be permanent citizenship for TPS recipients. Legislation that created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers passed with something like 30 Republican votes in the last Congress. Business owners recognize that we are really reliant on immigrant labor in this country. And the evidence shows that immigrants don’t take jobs away from current citizens.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.