A political compromise with the Trump administration on immigration is necessary to prevent the electorate from consolidating behind Trump thus bolstering his re-election chances. A compromise that would win legal relief for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the US. This article assesses the political and legislative possibilities and public attitudes that make a compromise possible. One that a majority of Americans would support and that would have a chance of passing congress this session. Nearly all segments of society, from leading business organizations, to trade unions and political institutions are actively seeking a resolution. Not all agree on the details, but all agree Congress needs to act.
Democrats, immigration rights advocates, progressives and the left can take this issue away from Trump. To do so, however, means compromising on measures to secure the border and to change asylum laws. Millions of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States have seen one deal after another falter while watching neighbors and family members deported. A compromise would relieve them from threats of deportation and millions would become eligible for social security and Medicare for which they are currently ineligible. This would be a major win for immigrant rights. The Trump administration and GOP lawmakers have voiced a readiness to make a deal on the undocumented. Whether or not they are sincere needs to be tested.
One underlying political assumption governs this approach. Americans, particularly the working class, have a right to demand effective immigration control at the borders. For one, to prevent undo competition for jobs and the downward pressure on wages and labor standards to which undocumented labor contributes. While business may want a free flow of undocumented labor, it is not in the interest of US labor, nor even those millions of immigrants currently living and working in the US. From this perspective, we can argue about how to manage borders, but not if we should.1 Trump will continue to win this argument, unless this is acknowledged.
Furthermore, to deny there is a crisis at the US-Mexico border, is to have ones head in the political sand. It is plain to see on the nightly news. While the reasons for it are complex, as well as tragic; this fact, not idealism should guide political tactics and proposals.
Leading Democrats say they are for border security, but have not offered any viable negotiating positions. They should not miss another opportunity to test the possibilities of winning comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). A possibility they stubbornly ignored during the government shutdown when Trump was in a more vulnerable negotiating position. Why don’t they take the lead? Political pundits from right to left, say the Democrats don’t want to give Trump a win on immigration (or anything) as the 2020 election approaches. If this is their strategy, it is sorely misguided. Inaction is a losing gambit. It will not help one undocumented immigrant. Public opinion demands action and compromise from both sides of the aisle, not petty party politics.
Some or all of the following will need to be on the negotiating table. Most of these points were agreed to in the 2013 bipartisan CIR legislation, Senate bill 744.
- Changing asylum laws to discourage the idea that by just be setting foot in the US allows one to apply.2
- Ending the visa lottery. This has little public support and acts a drain on talented and professional people from the nations from which people apply.
- Agreeing on a system for monitoring student visas, entering and exiting the US and instituting employment verification.
- Limiting what has been called, “chain migration” to a narrower set of family members.
- Agreeing on a means to alter the Flores Settlement (1997) that governs border patrol protocols when handling unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers with children. The settlement mandates release from detention after a period of no more than 20 days. It is clear this has induced for more families to migrate and claim asylum. Yet, 90 percent of the claims are denied, and people are deported if they can be located.
As such, Americans rightfully question how the tens of thousands arriving at the border can have credible claims. The only hope asylum seekers have of staying is to blend into the undocumented when they are released. They become permanent targets of immigration enforcement. To maintain laws and processes that erroneously convey hope in asylum is a cruel hoax on would be asylum seekers. As difficult as it is, this must be resolved.
More and more Americans lay the blame for inaction on a dysfunctional congress. If this doesn’t change, the Trump administration is likely to win more public support, not lose it. As unlikely as it may seem, it may be possible to bring Americans together around a realistic compromise for CIR. Reform that affirms the sovereignty of the border and affords border agents and immigration judges with the laws and resources to properly assess asylum applications expeditiously and fairly.
Complicating the asylum discussion is a belief that granting asylum is obligatory under international law. It is not clear cut. Those states party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, as is the US, retain the right to define and determine who meets the definition of a refuge. Sovereignty, then is assured for each country in regard to its immigration policies. And, again, on this issue, the administration is gaining support. The more it gains, the bargaining position for winning legal status for millions of undocumented will diminish.
Demands that need to be met in return
- The Trump administration and GOP need to agree to grant the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US legal status subject to review of their status and criminal record. Negotiations on legal background check parameters must be clearly defined so those with minor legal infractions, nonviolent crimes and immigration offenses are not automatically excluded.
- The target should be to include all undocumented who have been here three years or longer. Fewer than three years has little chance of passing.
- All Dreamer immigrants, children brought to the US by undocumented parents, as well as their parents must be granted legal status to keep families intact.
- All temporary status immigrants (TPS), from Liberia, Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras, many who have been living in the US for years, also need permanent legal status.
American public opinion overwhelmingly supports granting the undocumented such relief (80 percent in Gallup 2019 poll). Yet, without an agreement on border security and asylum issues public support drops off rapidly. Polling suggests Americans want to be generous, but not without tightening the border to halt illegal immigration. Polls also show that delaying congressional action risks a hardening of sentiments frustrated by the lack of congressional action. This plays into Trump’s hand.
A Gallup Poll in January this year showed 37 percent favored deporting all undocumented immigrants. Fifty percent support banning sanctuary cities, nearly 50 percent support ending immigrants from sponsoring family members, 85 percent want tighter border security and nearly that many supports hiring significantly more border patrol agents.
This is the political reality. And, it is realistic steps, not idealistic values, that are required to aid undocumented immigrants. If not, the political discord and divide is likely to become more volatile. A half a win now, is better than no win. Simply opposing Trump has proven a losing strategy. Senate bill 744 is the political center and the political possible. It was supported by many immigrant rights organizations and US labor unions. Senate Democrats were party to drafting the language.
Of course, efforts should be made to fight for improvements during negotiations and for more just solutions overtime, but the nations need a partial win now. To hope a Democratic administration and congress will enact a significantly more generous provisions than those in S.744 is Pollyannaish. They will have little choice to act. It appears they just want to claim credit for it on their watch.
A compromise approach might also lessen Trump’s support among his base. If he does not agree to negotiate or baulks at a deal that his base finds realistic it will cast doubt on his motives. If a deal is reached, it will take the issue off the table and both sides can claim victory. With this aside Democrats will have a better chance to defeat him 2020.
For activists that long for a more just solution, our struggle will continue. Our efforts must include demanding a change in the long-standing US foreign policy of interfering militarily in Central America and elsewhere. The bipartisan agreement on imperialist foreign policy is no more evident than that displayed toward Honduras under both the Obama and Trump administration. In 2009, then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, declined to call the coup in Honduras that ousted an elected government, a coup. The US sided with the elite coup makers, not the people.
Then, in 2017, the Trump administration gave a stamp of approval to a stolen election that again disenfranchised the people of Honduras. This led to protests and repression. The actions of both administrations led to a surge of asylum seekers at the US border. Our foreign policies create migration. This is not the space to review decades of mistaken, brutal US foreign policies in the region. The struggle to change US foreign policy will continue. However, the current immigration issues must be tackle now.
Leading Democrats were mum during the Obama administration as an estimated 2.5 million immigrants were deported. Some untold number led to family separations. In 2014-15, the administration paid for the Mexican police and military to close the border with Guatemala to stop unaccompanied minors from Honduras traveling to the US. Thus, it is the height of hypocrisy for Democrats to obstruct a deal that could bring relief to the undocumented. Is a deal possible? The only way to find out is to put a proposal on the table that tests whether or not the GOP and Trump are serious. If they are not, at least the American people will know who is obstructing a solution. As such, whether a deal is made or not, this approach can take the steam out of Trump’s rhetoric and dampen his re-election chances.
- For a US labor perspective see: “Immigration for Shared Prosperity: A Framework for Comprehensive Reform,” 2009, by Ray Marshall. A publication of the Economic Policy Institute, Washington, DC. Many features of S744 and other proposed legislation contain elements of this framework. It’s more progressive features are unlikely to pass congress, but the book is a helpful guide to working toward a compromise.
- GOP Senator Lindsay Graham has drafted legislation that would (1) allow families with minor children to be held for 100 days, (2) require Central Americans to apply for asylum in the home country or Mexico and (3) allow unaccompanied minors arriving at the border to be returned immediately.