Today’s unusual on-the-record negotiations between President Trump and members of Congress confirmed that the president was not a blithering idiot incapable of anything more than watching the Gorilla ChannelTM. The meeting was less clear in terms of policy, however. A lot of terms were thrown around (especially “comprehensive”), and it wasn’t always clear what each term meant for each speaker. Nevertheless, the room seemed divided between those who wanted a DACA bill that provided legalization and maybe a little border security and those — such as Tom Cotton and Kevin McCarthy — who said that a DACA fix also should include broader enforcement provisions, changes to the chain-migration system, and the reform (or elimination) of the diversity-lottery program. For his part, the president has said in the past that those legal-immigration reforms were a crucial part of a DACA fix.
There are both policy and strategic reasons for tying a DACA fix to increased enforcement and reforms to legal-immigration system. In terms of policy: Many members of Congress (including some in today’s meeting) have insisted that they don’t want to find themselves in the position of having to contemplate another amnesty ten or more years down the road. History suggests that any immigration amnesty encourages more illegal immigration. In order to prevent that encouragement from leading to an actual increase in illegal immigration, policymakers need to put in place policy measures that prevent illegal immigration. Thus, enforcement both at the border and in the interior of the country would be important.
But reforms to the legal-immigration system could also be part of resisting this increase in illegal immigration. Under our current immigration system, citizenship for a single person suddenly opens up the (at times, long-deferred) possibility for many other relatives to immigrate. This is a tremendous incentive for post-amnesty illegal immigration: Not only could the amnestied individual be put on a path to citizenship, but so too could many of his family members (who could legally immigrate after a period of time). Legal-immigration reform that prioritizes the immediate reunification of the nuclear family (spouse and minor children) would lessen the incentive for illegal immigration.
In terms of strategy: The country as a whole was burned by the 1986 amnesty, which traded immediate legalization for the promise of future enforcement. Illegal immigration swelled, and this political failure injected toxic skepticism into immigration politics.
A DACA deal that traded the legalization of some for reforms to enforcement and the legal-immigration system could be a vehicle for building trust. Moreover, it could be a chance to see whether a renewed enforcement regime worked. Were a DACA fix to pass, perhaps the only thing that could get maximalists back to the table on immigration would be a mass legalization of probably over 10 million people. There’s a reason why the politicians most sympathetic to immigration maximalism in today’s White House meeting (such as Dick Durbin) were calling for as focused a DACA bill as possible: A DACA bill that provided amnesty plus a window-dressing of “border security” would be a strategic rout for the center-right on immigration.
Moreover, a fig-leaf DACA bill could also be a political rout for Republicans heading into the 2018 midterms. November already looks like it could be a tough month for Republicans, and alienating even a fraction of the base on immigration could depress turnout in areas where the GOP needs it enough. In addition to its lessons about candidate quality, the Alabama special election also showed the lack of GOP turnout can put even safe seats in peril. The GOP’s decision on DACA could have both policy and political consequences.