Don't Rush for the Border on Immigration Fix

Evan Soltas is a contributor to Bloomberg View.
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Everything you need to know about the House's involvement in immigration reform is symbolized by two Republicans: Steve King of Iowa and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

"For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," King said of Hispanic immigrants on Tuesday. "Those people would be legalized with the same act."

If you've only been listening to King and his ilk, then you'd think all House Republicans are bigots. You'd think, also, that their opposition to a single-bill, comprehensive approach to immigration reform in the Senate is just using an incremental approach as cover. All they really want is border control and mass deportation.

Yet that reductive reading misses something important: King is being angry and outrageous because he isn't winning. And it's not that he's losing to Democrats, or to the moderates of the Senate. Steve King is losing to down-the-line conservatives like Bob Goodlatte.

Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and an immigration lawyer by profession, is the one directing the incremental approach. And what's become fully clear in just the last week is that Goodlatte's incrementalism isn't about killing any hope of reform. It's about two things: (1) the political reality of a severely polarized House and (2) a sincere view that, when it comes to immigration reform, the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts, but rather that a series of well-designed partial deals is better than a sub-optimal comprehensive one. The American people seem to agree: 53 percent said in a Washington Post/ABC News poll they'd take the incremental approach; 32 percent said they'd go comprehensive.

Goodlatte's first reason for going slow: Political polarization inhibits political compromise. The rewards to meeting someone in the middle -- as a comprehensive bill would require -- are nonexistent for most of the House GOP. That's according to new research from Jacob Montgomery and Brendan Nyhan, political scientists at Duke University and Dartmouth University, who found politicians benefit from extremism.. "In districts in which the party is strongest," Montgomery and Nyhan wrote, "the marginal effect of roll-call extremity is actually either negligible or positive."

The bet is that a polarized House will still pass laws that are relatively uncontroversial -- such as an amnesty for undocumented immigrants brought here as children, King notwithstanding. The bet is also that a single controversial measure would bleed onto an otherwise good deal.

The second part of Goodlatte's calculus is that he believes going slow is the right approach. I think so, too -- though I'd take the comprehensive bill before nothing -- and that's because the House is moving toward to a set of immigration-policy changes that are superior on their merits.

For one, the House isn't taking the Senate path of border-control bribery. (It's a boondoggle.) Senators John Hoeven and Bob Corker wanted to spend $46 billion on miles of new fence and thousands of new agents without identifying the objective. The House plan flips that by developing a plan for border control first, then allocating the money to make it happen.

There's another piece of good news. The House is also moving towards a "path to legalization" or a "path to citizenship." The idea is a series of steps -- paying back taxes, learning English, and so on -- that undocumented immigrants would have to complete before they gain a legal status. It had been thought the whole point of the incremental approach to selectively avoid such a path. Now Goodlatte has said he supports some version of the idea, and House Speaker John Boehner says he won't oppose it. Huh?

I was in the camp that thought it naive to expect action from the House. I'm still suspicious and still favorable to freer immigration than the representatives would contemplate. And the House still has yet to pass its bills. But I'm watching my suspicions be proven wrong. Goodlatte's approach isn't King's, and it's actually quite, well, welcoming.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Evan Soltas at