Over dinner in early September, President Trump made a tentative deal-not-a-deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children (the Dreamers) could stay, but legislation would not be tied to a border wall. Trump seemed to realize, unlike his predecessors, that the art of the deal involves a step-by-step process. Before you can land a big deal, you need a working relationship built on a few smaller deals. The firing of Steve Bannon signaled that substance was taking priority over empty fights.
Now it seems that the purists have won, those who would rather fight than forge a deal. As of Sunday night’s White House letter and list of demands, there are seventy requirements “that must be included as part of any legislation.…”
Is this what the American people want? Regardless if you support or oppose Trump on immigration details, the bigger issue is whether to take the steps necessary to forge real reform or play politics. The Sunday letter is playing politics, and a setback for reform. What if the President pushed instead for the step-by-step approach? The end result would likely be a nightmare for Democrats: establishing law-and-order, giving the White House a win, and crushing the myth that immigration reform is racist.
My colleague David Brady and I recently worked with YouGov to do a survey of American attitudes on immigration that goes into greater depth than any poll before. We asked 1,000 American adults typical questions such as whether immigration should be increased or decreased, but we also tried to find areas of consensus by asking about more than a dozen specific policy ideas.
If Trump wants a win, he should strike a pragmatic deal on a simple bill. The president would have strong support for a bill that grants legal status to Dreamers, not citizenship (exactly like DACA), with no other tradeoffs. Save those for the next step.
The big surprise to us is that the American people are far more welcoming to immigrants – legal immigrants especially – than you might realize, but also want respect for the rule of law. Americans’ welcoming attitudes are in stark contrast to polling of other countries, and Americans have not changed much despite the election of Donald Trump and the partisan fires that are burning. Conservatives and liberals alike celebrate ethnic diversity.
Yet a vast majority (88 percent) of the public thinks that current “politicians would rather fight over immigration than fix it.” An even greater proportion (95 percent) of elderly respondents agree, what with their clear memories of the Reagan-led compromise in 1986 and the Johnson-led legislative overhaul of immigration in 1965. What this means is that if Trump and the Democrats can work together on this issue, it will be an event worth celebrating. Just maybe democracy can work in the modern era.
More than two-thirds (71 percent) of the public thinks that “Politicians should compromise on immigration policy.” Compromise is significantly more popular among Democrats than Republicans, but we also found that Democratic voters hold more extremist views on a 7-point scale of immigration attitudes, whereas Republicans tend to be more evenly spread.
What should be done about the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.? There is no majority support for either deportation (33 percent) nor for the other extreme of granting a pathway to citizenship (16 percent). Instead, there is a mix of support for granting legal status without citizenship (29 percent), doing nothing (10 percent) and deporting adults only (12 percent).
The mistake will be to overreach by seeking a comprehensive piece of legislation. In the Ahab theory of landing a big fish, that can work. In reality, comprehensive legislation has failed for decades. Purists and partisans routinely sabotage those comprehensive bills, as Senator Obama did to the McCain-Kennedy effort in 2007, and as Steve Miller is doing now. If Trump wants a win, he should strike a pragmatic deal on a simple bill. The president would have strong support for a bill that grants legal status to Dreamers, not citizenship (exactly like DACA), with no other tradeoffs. Save those for the next step.
The most popular reform is mandating that employers in all fifty states electronically verify the citizenship and legal work status of employees – known as “E-verify.” Another idea with 72 percent support is called Kate’s law in honor of Kate Steinle: “Prison terms of 10-25 years for illegal immigrants who re-enter the U.S. after being convicted of certain crimes here and deported.” Democratic voters support both of those ideas.
The public does not agree with the principle of reducing legal immigration levels, but they do support reforming who gets in. Two-thirds of the public prefer a shift toward merit-based immigration rules. In fact, support for a merit-based legal immigration system had widespread support from Democrats (60 percent) as well as Republicans (74 percent) and Independents (68 percent). Sixty-seven percent of Hispanics support this shift, too.
The reality is that the past six presidents (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama) have been explicitly pro-immigration, yet comprehensive legislation has proven to be a white whale. Wouldn’t it be a surprise if the supposedly anti-immigrant Donald Trump fixed immigration by doing one pragmatic deal after another? We can dream. Unfortunately, the president may be captaining the wrong boat.