Editor’s Note: The following essay originally appeared in City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
There’s little reason to believe that President Trump’s State of the Union immigration proposals will be met with anything but continued Democratic “resistance.” The Democrats’ packing the galleries with so-called dreamers was a signal that Trump’s offer of a “path to citizenship” for 1.8 million of them, a serious concession, hasn’t softened liberal opposition.
No one proposed a wall, certainly. But we did agree on a commitment to the electronic E-Verify system, designed to make it impossible for illegal immigrants to get hired for jobs. And, before “chain migration” entered the political discussion, we pushed to limit the practice: “Congress Should Eliminate Diversity Visas, Restrict Eligibility for Family-Sponsored Visas, and Increase Visas for Skilled Immigrants,” our report declared. Doing this would mean an additional 150,000 visas for workers with coveted skills — and an end to granting preference to newcomers simply because they represented “diversity” or had blood relations here already. (That was then: Tuesday night, Democrats hooted and booed President Trump when he proposed to limit this practice, demonstrating how quickly the Left has moved in a radical direction.)
Our report suggested that extended family members should no longer get immigration preference but that spouses and children, as members of nuclear families, still would. Workplace enforcement would lay the foundation for eventual legalization. Even this came with conditions, though. We proposed the launch of a “legalization program requiring unauthorized workers who have been in the country for five or more years to: pay a fine; provide evidence of current employment and a steady work history, payment of taxes, and good moral character; pass a background check; and study English and learn about U.S. history and government.”
The Brookings–Duke report fit within a moderate-Democrat tradition of immigration restriction that has now vanished.
It’s hard to imagine prominent Democrats endorsing such plans today, though doing so could go a long way toward defusing the bad feelings about immigration policy. Compromise with the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be on the table; Democrats seem determined to stick with a hardline on amnesty, without negotiations. But the underappreciated Brookings–Duke report pointed the way toward good policy that could gain broad political acceptance. Clearly, $25 billion for a wall might make it tough for willing Democrats to accept Trump’s concessions on “dreamers.” But how about an “electronic wall”? Let Trump and the Democrats save face — and negotiations actually get to “yes.”
— Howard Husock is vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, a City Journal contributing editor, and the author of The Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake.