Only Nixon could go to China and it may be that only Trump can get immigration reform done.
There have been several attempts at immigration reform over the past two decades. George W. Bush tried to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007 that paired a guest worker program with increased border enforcement. Six years later, in 2013, the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” tried to forge a similar compromise bill. Both attempts failed, largely due to conservative opposition to “amnesty,” apparently defined by many on the right as “anything short of deportation.”
As a consequence of these failures, 16 years after the September 11 attacks, the US border is still not secure. We still don’t have a way of tracking visitors who overstay their visas, as several of the al Qaeda hijackers did. The all or nothing approach to immigration reform by Republicans has effectively kept the border open for a decade and a half.
While Republicans derided reformers as “RINOs,” Donald Trump campaigned on a hard line of immigration policy. Trump’s Wall, deportation proposals and harsh rhetoric earned him an anti-immigrant reputation even though at times he did hint that he was open to compromise.
In August 2016, Trump told Sean Hannity, “No citizenship. Let me go a step further — they'll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there's no amnesty, as such, there's no amnesty, but we work with them.”
Trump’s policy balloon was similar to aspects of the Bush and Gang of Eight proposals. Trump’s idea was quickly retracted, but the candidate was correct that if illegal immigrants pay penalties and back taxes, then by definition it is not an amnesty. “Amnesty” is defined as “an official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses.” In contrast, the reform proposals were methods of paying restitution for the crime of entering the US illegally.
A year later, in September 2017, President Trump declared an end to the President Obama’s executive amnesty, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and gave Congress a six-month deadline to act. Congress has had a problem arriving a compromise, however.
The fundamental problem is that neither side has a supermajority and so neither can force its will on the other. For any bill to pass, there must be a working bipartisan coalition, but anti-immigration hardliners on the right insist on no path to legalization and liberals on the far left insist on no Wall. Congress is at an impasse.
In a meeting with members of Congress and the press on Tuesday, President Trump said, “We have something in common. We’d like to see this get done.” Trump called for a “bill of love,” the New York Times reported, that paired new immigration rules with a compromise on DACA.
Trump rejected Democrat calls to make DACA a part of the government funding bill, but said that an immigration bill could be discussed “the next afternoon.” Trump signaled that the immigration bill could go beyond DACA, telling Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), “If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat. You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
The question is whether Trump can stand the heat from his base, many of who supported him largely because of his immigration stance. Regardless of whether immigration reform is good policy, the flip-flop would stand as one of the largest betrayals in American political history, akin to George Herbert Walker Bush walking back his promise of “no new taxes” and Barack Obama’s reversal of his position on same-sex marriage.
The question is whether Trump’s base would follow him to a pro-immigration reform position. For a candidate who built his campaign around the idea of a Wall and deportation, comprehensive immigration reform might be a bridge too far. Nevertheless, if the nonideological Trump can move his base to middle and forge a working coalition between Republicans and Democrats, it could breathe new life into his presidency and open many other possibilities for bipartisan cooperation.
President Trump faces the greatest risk in the attempt at finding middle ground. If the president’s base abandons him, he will be left with virtually no support and no defense against a possible impeachment. The immigration gamble could make or break the Trump legacy.