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Gloomier Than Trump 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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The most depressing remarks on immigration this week did not leak from opposite ends of Donald Trump's capacious mouth. Trump's much anticipated speech in Phoenix, Arizona, on Wednesday night was a grim return to the politics-cum-slasher-movie that has defined his candidacy from the start.

The more alarming set of comments came from a more rational and knowledgeable source. In the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza published a smart interview with Becky Tallent, a former aide to Senator John McCain. If Trump represents the fright-night wing of the GOP, Tallent, who Cillizza described as "perhaps the leading immigration expert within the GOP," is associated with a more pragmatic strain of thought. When she was hired by House Speaker John Boehner in 2013, it was widely interpreted as a sign that Boehner was serious about passing immigration reform.

Boehner is gone now, having been forced to walk the plank by his mutinous, anti-government crew. Tallent, too, is out of government, and she's not exactly a fount of optimism on the immigration front. "What is clear about the dynamics of the immigration debate is that pro-reform politicians are losing the messaging fight," she told Cillizza. "Yelling 'amnesty!' is much easier than outlining thoughtful proposals, but ultimately thoughtful proposals are what is needed to resolve this sticky issue."

The market for thoughtful proposals isn't looking good, according to Tallent. "Comprehensive reform as the Senate proposed it in 2006, 2007 and 2013 will never receive majority support of House Republicans," she said. "Post-Obamacare, the American people and particularly Republicans just don't trust massive, 2,000-page pieces of legislation." In other words, in polarized Washington, and in Republican districts where large numbers of citizens falsely believe the U.S. is plagued by the "open borders" that Trump cites ad nauseam, complexity is more than the system can bear.   

Immigration reform will have to be broken into discrete pieces, Tallent said, and even that's unlikely until "the American people demand it." 

Yet there is no particular reason for large numbers of Americans to demand such a thing. Illegal immigration has declined and border security has increased, so the negative effects of illegal immigration are smaller even as many Americans believe -- and are repeatedly encouraged to believe -- otherwise. While a path to legalization or citizenship would unlock the economic potential of undocumented immigrants, easing the way to entrepreneurship, home ownership and investment in social capital, the broad benefits of that aren't readily apparent to non-immigrants.

"To a large extent, immigration reform is hostage to the civil war within the GOP between the modernizers and the populists," said Frank Sharry, a prominent advocate for undocumented immigrants, via e-mail. "Over the years, pro-reform Republicans have been out-hustled and out-dueled by a motley alliance of anti-immigrant groups, the conservative infotainment complex and a relatively small group of white-nationalist-leaning grassroots activists. They are the tail wagging the GOP dog."

Tallent can't resist blaming President Barack Obama for the impasse. "Republican members of Congress just didn't trust this administration to follow through on immigration proposals to actually secure the border and enforce our immigration laws before moving forward with a mass legalization program," she said.

That claim was belied in an April 2013 press release from Republican Senator Marco Rubio outlining the Senate reform legislation's "security triggers," which were prerequisites to mass legalization: "After 10 years, there are six security trigger steps that must be met before any currently illegal immigrant is given access to a green card." 

Ten years, in this case, would have been 2023 -- five years after Obama's last day in office. More simply, Congress could have followed Democratic Senator Charles Schumer's suggestion: If you don't trust Obama, pass the law now and schedule it to go into effect in 2017, after he's gone.

Given how profoundly this president haunts them in life, perhaps Republicans won't feel secure doing any actual problem-solving or legislating until after his passing.  Meantime, Trump's slasher porn is all the immigration policy they got.

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

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net