Can't We Compromise on Immigration When Everyone Agrees It Is Broken?

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Immigration is one of those subjects where I I think I'd like to see some genuine compromise from our political leaders. Some of the ideas I've heard from liberals are good ones, and some of the ideas I've heard from conservatives are good ones. It also sounds like there are at least some points of agreement between liberals and conservatives (e.g., both say they want to see improvements to border security). It seems like it should be possible to implement the policies on which the two parties can agree.

At the same time, I have to admit that I have little idea what most conservatives want when it comes to immigration. I hear what some of them say they want, but it is not always clear to be whether they really want what they say or are using it more as a negotiating tactic. It is also not always clear how much support some of these ideas have from other conservatives. The same is true when it comes to liberals. I hear what some say they want, but I am not always convinced that it is what they want or whether other liberals agree with them. This should not be too surprising since there is more than enough diversity among both conservatives and liberals that some are going to disagree with whatever others say they want. This situation makes it difficult to anticipate what a good compromise might look like if there isn't really such a thing as a conservative position (or a liberal position) on immigration but several of each.

When I think of what a good compromise on immigration might look like, I recognize that it means conservatives will get some of what they want and that liberals will get some of what they want. That means that conservatives will be upset about some of what they have given up, and liberals will feel the same way. Since both sides have some good ideas, the hope would be that they would rise to the surface and end up being part of the compromise.

What Do Conservatives Want on Immigration?

We have been hearing a lot about improved border security lately, so that could be a good place to start. It seems like conservatives are opposed to considering what liberals refer to as "comprehensive immigration reform" until border security is improved. I think this makes sense. If we could reduce the number of people entering the country illegally through improved border security, we might be in a better position to give our entire system of immigration the long-overdue overhaul it desperately needs.

Suppose we are able to achieve a meaningful reduction in the number of people entering illegally. Then what? What do we do with those who are already here? Some conservatives seem to want to round up everyone who is already in the country illegally and deport them. While I understand the impulse to punish those who broke the law, I think this would be expensive and logistically challenging. Many of these people entered the country legally (e.g., temporary work visas) but stayed longer than they were supposed to. Assuming some were smart enough to move and change jobs, finding them is not going to be easy. What are we willing to spend to do so? And then there is the question of what to do about their families, some of whom are bound to be here legally.

Some conservatives are clear that they seek to dramatically reduce the number of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, regardless of whether we are talking about legal or illegal immigration. I'm not sure most conservatives feel this way, but it is clear that some do. I would hope that any "comprehensive immigration reform" would examine what we are trying to accomplish through immigration and involve asking ourselves some difficult questions about how restrictive it should be. Liberals often herald Canada as being so much more "progressive" than we are, but Canada has a merit-based immigration system that can make legal immigration more difficult. Is this something conservatives would like to implement here? Perhaps a merit-based system should be considered.

One of the more common things I hear from conservatives involves the expression of resentment of those who are here illegally. They are viewed as a drain on the system, as taking jobs away from hard-working Americans, as being rewarded for breaking the law, and so on. While I don't agree that these things are true in many cases, they are accurate in some cases. Such cases trigger moral outrage, in part, because they are perceived as unfair. I think that's understandable. It wouldn't hurt to come up with some ways to de-incentivize illegal immigration.

What Do Liberals Want on Immigration?

This one is much harder for me, both because I am a liberal and because liberals seem to be all over the map with regard to what they say they want. While many conservatives insist that all liberals want "open borders," I don't. I also don't think I am the only liberal who thinks it would be idiotic to "abolish ICE." At the same time, I am not about to claim that no liberals would embrace these ideas. I've seen some recently who have such slogans as part of their Twitter bios.

When I hear Democratic politicians talk about how they too want improved border security, I tend to be a bit skeptical. Is this really something they want, or is this more about posturing in the same way both major political parties have taken turns trying to look "tough on crime," often with disastrous consequences? I hope it is the former but suspect it is the latter, especially when some of the same politicians appear to favor "open borders" when they find themselves in front of other constituents. I'd like to see more liberals figure out what they are trying to accomplish via immigration.

When liberals talk of "comprehensive immigration reform," they usually bring up "a path to citizenship." Since there already is a path to citizenship, I assume this means that they want an easier path to citizenship. I think there are a number of arguments that could be made to support this; however, some seem like a hard sell these days. Making legal immigration easier, simpler, cheaper, and faster might have some advantages. But before we do this, it seems like we should have a clear answer about what we are hoping to gain by doing so. This can't just be about opening the doors and letting anybody in. Well, I guess it can, but I'd have real trouble thinking that was a good idea.

Many liberals point out that our economy benefits from immigration, and I think they are right to do so. There are jobs that are hard to fill, and immigrant labor can be a valuable resource. If we could somehow eliminate illegal immigration, we'd probably find ourselves needing to replace quite a few of these workers with legal immigrants. Still, I have a hard time believing that most of the liberals who want an easier path to citizenship are focusing primarily on the economic benefits.

Is Compromise on Immigration Possible?

I think it is not just possible but likely. The real question is whether we can figure out a good compromise that incorporates the best ideas of both sides and manages to do without the worst. Beyond that, I think that we need to figure out what both sides really want. Suppose it were to turn out that what most liberals really want is a major expansion of legal immigration while most conservatives want a significant reduction in all forms of immigration (i.e., legal and illegal). That would make reaching a compromise much tougher, but I think it could still be done. The real challenge appears to be convincing conservatives and liberals that they need to figure out what they want and overcome what often seems like their reluctance to discuss it openly.