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Steven V. Roberts: Take half a loaf

President Biden faces a tough choice on immigration. Does he accept compromises that advance some, but not all, items on his reform agenda? Or does he insist on the sort of all-or-nothing strategy that has failed repeatedly since President Reagan signed the last comprehensive overhaul in 1986?

Biden is absolutely right to make immigration a top priority. After Donald Trump trashed the system for four years and slammed the door on a hurting world, the moral case is indisputable. According to the U.N.’s relief agency, there are 79.5 million displaced people in the world. Of the 26 million who have left their home countries as refugees, half are children.

The economic case for taking more immigrants is also unquestioned. The U.S. birthrate has fallen to a 35-year low, so any growth will have to come from foreigners. If all those aging white Trump voters want to enjoy their retirement benefits, they should be begging for more hardworking, taxpaying immigrants.

These moral and economic realities have to be balanced against the political reality. True, 77% of Americans told Gallup that immigration is “a good thing for the country.” But Trump has so inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment among his core base of supporters that few, if any, Republicans are willing to enter serious negotiations on Biden’s more ambitious reform proposals, which would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. An elevated unemployment rate of 6.3%, plus the fear that newcomers would aggravate the COVID-19 pandemic, make Biden’s political problem that much tougher.

So administration officials should follow a carefully measured strategy on two fronts. Legislatively, they should be prepared to accept a bill that puts off the larger issue while conferring legal status on at least three critical groups: youngsters who were brought here as children; survivors of natural disasters in 10 countries; and workers — such as farmhands and health aides — who are essential to the economy.

Biden’s aides have already been signaling that the new president is willing to split his proposal apart and accept a first step. “He was in the Senate for 36 years, and he’s the first to tell you the legislative process can look different on the other end of where it starts,” one White House official told reporters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi concedes that some lawmakers “want to do piecemeal, and that may be a good approach.”

In terms of executive action, Team Biden should steadily improve its ability to consider and process applicants, including asylum-seekers who show up at the Southern border. But it has to avoid sending signals that trigger a wholesale influx of migrants to swamp the system, while providing potent ammunition to their political enemies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was right to express caution when he announced the rollback of some of Trump’s more draconian policies: “These actions do not mean that the U.S. border is open. While we are committed to expanding legal pathways for protection and opportunity here and in the region, the United States is a country with borders and laws that must be enforced.”

However, a “piecemeal” approach — one that understands what’s doable politically — is anathema to immigrant activists and their allies on the Democratic left.

“We have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country,” thundered Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the lead sponsor of Biden’s comprehensive proposal.

He’s right about the “humanity and contributions of immigrants,” and I wish he were right about the politics. But he’s not. The Democrats should be paying close attention to lawmakers like Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who represents a district along the Texas border with Mexico. Gonzalez told Politico: “Our party should be concerned. If we go off the rails, it’s going to be bad for us. Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.”

Biden is determined to go big on his pandemic relief bill, and he’ll be able to utilize a legislative provision called reconciliation that prevents the deployment of Senate filibusters on budget-related measures. Accordingly, he should be able to pass most — if not quite all — of his proposals with just Democratic votes.

But he can’t do that on immigration. If he takes the no-compromises, all-or-nothing approach advocated by Menendez, he’ll wind up with nothing. Then no one benefits — except for the Trumpist xenophobes who want to keep out as many foreigners as possible.

 

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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