Ten years ago, George W. Bush came to Washington as the first new president in a generation or more who had deep personal convictions about immigration policy and some plans for where he wanted to go with it. He wasn’t alone. Lots of people in lots of places were ready to work on the issue: Republicans, Democrats, Hispanic advocates, business leaders, even the Mexican government.
Like so much else about the past decade, things didn’t go well. Immigration policy got kicked around a fair bit, but next to nothing got accomplished. Old laws and bureaucracies became increasingly dysfunctional. The public grew anxious. The debates turned repetitive, divisive and sterile.
The last gasp of the lost decade came this month when the lame-duck Congress — which struck compromises on taxes, gays in the military and arms control — deadlocked on the Dream Act.
The United States is in the midst of a wave of immigration as substantial as any ever experienced. Millions of people from abroad have settled here peacefully and prosperously, a boon to the nation. Nonetheless, frustration with policy sours the mood. More than a quarter of the foreign-born are here without authorization. Meanwhile, getting here legally can be a long, costly wrangle. And communities feel that they have little say over sudden changes in their populations. People know that their world is being transformed, yet Washington has not enacted an overhaul of immigration law since 1965. To move forward, we need at least three fundamental changes in the way the issue is handled.
The lost decade produced big, bold plans for social engineering. It was a 10-year quest for a grand bargain that would repair the entire system at once, through enforcement, ID cards, legalization, a temporary worker program and more. Fierce cloakroom battles were also fought over the shape and size of legal immigration. Visa categories became a venue for ideological competition between business, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and elements of labor, led by the AFL-CIO, over regulation of the labor market: whether to keep it tight to boost wages or keep it loose to boost growth.
But every attempt to fix everything at once produced a political parabola effect. As legislation reached higher, its base of support narrowed. The last effort, and the biggest of them all, collapsed on the Senate floor in July 2007. Still, the idea of a grand bargain has been kept on life support by advocates of generous policies. Just last week, President Obama and Hispanic lawmakers renewed their vows to seek comprehensive immigration reform, even as the prospects grow bleaker. Meanwhile, the other side has its own designs, demanding total control over the border and an enforcement system with no leaks before anything else can happen.
This year, many Republicans campaigned on vows, sometimes harshly stated, to crack down on illegal immigration. Meanwhile, many Democrats tried to rally Hispanic voters by demonizing restrictionists on the other side.
Immigration politics could thus become a way for both sides to feed polarization. In the short term, they can achieve their political objectives by stoking voters’ anxiety with the scariest hobgoblins: illegal immigrants vs. the racists who would lock them up. Stumbling down this road would produce a decade more lost than the last.
Roberto Suro is a professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California.