In some idealized version of party democracy, candidates campaign in support of policies that can both get them elected and solve real problems. In theory, the goals of winning elections and governing effectively should be symbiotic. But that is not the political universe we live in. Instead, candidates all too often say what they must in order to get elected without worrying much about the consequences for governing.
The disjuncture between campaign rhetoric and governing realities is nowhere starker than in the domain of immigration policy. President Trump ran on a platform of building out the existing wall along the Mexican border and getting Mexico to pay for it. The crowds at his rallies cheered enthusiastically for this even though prominent Mexican politicians made it very clear from the outset that they would never pick up the tab.
Once in office, President Trump had to figure out how to get Americans, not Mexicans, to pay for his wall. When the lengthy government shutdown did not convince the Congress to give the President the funding amount he wanted, Donald Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to redirect money from other authorized programs to pay for his new wall construction. The President now has to hope that he has enough support from his own party to sustain a veto over any Congressional effort to reassert its constitutionally mandated authority over the public purse.
All of this brouhaha is the result of President Trump’s dogged determination to deliver on a promise made in the heat of campaign rallies at a time when he apparently did not think he was going to win. In the meantime, those Central American refugee caravans he warned about repeatedly were effectively stopped at the border without additional barriers, most illicit drugs still come in through legal ports, the flow of Mexican undocumented workers across the border remains historically low, and the troops the President called to duty are only clearing brush. The President wants to fortify the southern but not the northern border even though the number of Canadians who overstay their visas far exceeds all other countries, including Mexico. Who or what will protect us from all those undocumented Canadians?
Despite numerous past efforts, no policy to date has resolved our border issues to the satisfaction of either political party: not the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the Real ID Act of 2005, or Obama’s 2012 DACA executive action. The reason is easy to explain. You cannot solve a problem until you agree on the desired outcome. And Americans cannot do that because they have multiple and conflicting immigration goals.
Our ambivalence about what we want results in policy vacillation. We turn a blind eye to undocumented immigrants when we need their labor, but then crack down on them when the economy cools down. We welcome refugees that fought with or aided us in foreign wars, but lower the refugee quotas drastically when there is no obligation other than humanitarian compassion.
Our differences derive to some degree from partisanship, but more fundamentally, the problem is the tension between the four basic goals of U.S. immigration policy: family considerations, economic value, diversity, and humanitarianism. Immigrants that are brought in under family, diversity or humanitarian programs are not necessarily the particular skill mix we need for our economy. Without the limits we place on legal permanent residents who are admitted for employment reasons, we would have disproportionate numbers of Indian and Chinese tech workers, undermining the diversity goal. And reunifying separated families places compassion ahead of the efficiency gains of a totally merit-based employment orientation. In short, immigration policy is all about the tradeoffs between competing values.
The President himself is not conflicted about what he wants. He would like to get rid of the diversity lottery and lower both family-based admissions and refugee admissions in favor of what he has termed “fair, equitable, merit-based” immigration. This is the classic employer’s vision of good immigration policy. It also happens to be consistent with one version of the Republican Party’s future political interests.
After losing the 2012 Presidential Election, the Republican Party’s postmortem warned that unless the party adopted a broader outreach to nonwhites, the party could find itself in a deep demographic hole. That prescription would have challenged Republican Party orthodoxy much more fundamentally than the path Trump ultimately followed: Stay the course of being a predominantly white, Christian party and shape demographic reality to fit that party profile. Step one: Slow the immigration from Africa and Latin America. Step two: Restrict ballot access with new voting rules in the name of preventing in-person voter fraud.
However, the specter that haunts Republican political operatives is the prospect of the national party following the path that the California Republican Party took two decades ago. Governor Pete Wilson, facing a tough re-election campaign in the middle of a recession, endorsed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that would have denied emergency services and schooling to undocumented immigrants. The campaign featured particularly harsh TV ads that offended many in the Latino community, driving them further into the Democratic camp at a time when it looked as though the Latino community’s record of upward economic mobility and social conservatism might create inroads for the Republicans. Ceding the Latino vote to the Democrats along with the mass migration of college educated workers into California’s high-tech and green economy industries put the Republicans in a very deep political hole, leading to complete Democratic dominance in the legislature and statewide offices.
But politics is all about the short term prevailing over the long term. President Trump needs to keep his base happy to have any chance of getting re-elected or even to avoid impeachment. America’s hodgepodge of immigration goals has a lot of inertial force behind it. Priorities of the current administration (e.g. reducing the refugee ceiling from 50,000 to 30,000 in 2019) will eventually be undone when party control shifts once again in the future. Perhaps there is no absolutely “right” solution to the balance of our competing immigration goals. Maybe vacillating between them is the best we can do. If so, we have the perfect political system for that “policy.”