Know any good builders?

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Republicans Unravel on Immigration

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Donald Trump's new immigration plan would lead to the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Scott Walker says that sounds about right. Jeb Bush disagrees, saying we need a pathway to legalization for those immigrants, and John Kasich won't rule out full citizenship. But Marco Rubio told a conservative audience earlier this year that "you can’t even have a conversation" about legalization or citizenship until the nation's border is secure.

Avoiding a real conversation on immigration is exactly what created the opening for Trump, whose new leadership role seems unlikely to go well for the party. Instead, the two sides of the Republican immigration war should confront the issue directly. If they did, I imagine it would sound something like this:

Hardliners: We can't deport 11 million people, which is impractical and would make the U.S. look ghastly to friends and foes around the world. But we don't want to give amnesty to illegal immigrants either.

Softies: OK. What do you propose?

Hard: We'll build a wall. A massive wall on the Mexican border and a high-tech visa tracking system for visitors. Then, when the border is truly secure, we'll figure out some kind of accommodation with long-settled illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

Soft: OK, but some of that border terrain is pretty dicey.

Hard: We know a guy who says he's a great builder.

Soft: What about the boats?

Hard: Boats?

Soft: The U.S. has about 95,000 miles of coastline. As Europeans know, boats are excellent for transporting migrants in large numbers. You can't build a wall across the Gulf of Mexico.

Hard: In that case, the only way to stop the influx is to cut off migrants' ability to earn income in the U.S. We'll have to mandate nationwide implementation of the e-verify system to check the legal status of all workers.  

Soft: That's an enforcement policy with teeth -- provided you also authorize a vast increase in workplace raids to make sure that employers are hiring only U.S citizens.

Hard: We don't like empowering federal agents. And our donors won't like their workplaces being raided.

Soft: Thoughtful of you to consider our donors' feelings.

Hard: Fine. If that's the only way to stop the scourge of illegal immigration, we'll institute mandatory e-verify and unleash the feds. 

Soft: Great. We'll get credit for staring down the people who fund our campaigns. Just one problem remains. When we institute and enforce mandatory e-verify nationwide, millions of gainfully employed undocumented immigrants will lose their jobs. That means millions of destitute immigrants who can't pay rent, patronize neighborhood shops or support their families, including -- this one's ironic -- their American citizen children. So there's a downside: Local merchants who serve immigrant communities will fail, and immigrant families will be evicted from their homes and left begging on the streets. It'll look pretty bad.

Hard: Uh.

Soft: We could let the Democrats start a massive new tax-subsidized federal benefit bureaucracy to support undocumented immigrants?

Hard: No!

Soft: Well, then, we're stuck between mass amnesty or mass deportation. 

Hard: We can't deport 11 million people, but we don't want to give amnesty to illegal immigrants, either.

Soft: OK. What do you propose?

Hard: We'll build a wall.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net