One of the most immediate immigration crises that lawmakers face is how to handle the Dreamers, an estimated 800,000 immigrants who arrived here illegally when their parents brought them as children. But in a remarkable White House meeting with top Democratic and Republican lawmakers this week, President Donald Trump indicated he’s open to supporting a comprehensive immigration reform that could go well beyond that.
This was most welcome news. Not since Ronald Reagan has an American president presided over a comprehensive overhaul of our immigration laws — and in the minds of many, Reagan’s fix only created new and vexing problems. Millions of immigrants have arrived illegally in the decades since. Their presence here has helped build our local economies, reunited many families and given birth to legions of new American citizens.
But these newcomers, by arriving without legal sanction, have also stoked fears about security and have for years bedeviled our politics as Americans simply have not been able to agree on whether to welcome them or to oppose their presence here.
In light of this, and after decades of failures on Capitol Hill and torrents of tough talk by presidents and candidates alike, the U.S. desperately needs to address this issue and to do it with both firmness and fairness.
More than DACA
Congress is busy drafting and fighting over first-step pieces of legislation that wouldn’t tackle the larger immigration challenge, but would, as both House and Senate leaders have said, serve as a trust-building exercise.
For example, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, unveiled a compromise bill long in the making that would permit nearly 700,000 of the DACA beneficiaries to extend their stays in three-year increments. It would also clear the way for immigrants here illegally to earn work visas to work in agriculture — a small step, but a positive one.
As Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Texas reporters last week: Americans don’t trust Washington on immigration. He argues that until they do, a comprehensive reform package is impossible.
The feeling in the House seems to be that a compromise on DACA that includes efforts to slow the flow of immigrants seeking to cross the border illegally to find work could help conservatives feel better about broader reforms in the future. Until then, not even Trump’s open-ended comments at White House has fazed them.
That’s why Trump’s open-ended comments last week were so welcome. America has been looking to Washington to solve the same two challenges with immigration for decades. How we will treat the roughly 13 million immigrants here illegally? And how can we better control entry into the country in the future?
They should be addressed together. Republicans are right that if we solve the first issue without addressing the second, we may only encourage fresh waves of illegal entrants.
Trump as grand bargainer?
Solutions have eluded a string of presidents. President George W. Bush took office 17 years ago amid sky-high hopes — soon dashed — that he’d be able to parlay his experience in Texas into support for a lasting compromise.
That Trump, author of some of the coarsest rhetoric about illegal immigrants of any modern president, could play a productive role in addressing this critical problem is nothing less than extraordinary.
But that’s not to say it’s impossible. And not even without precedent.
Consider only the most obvious example: When Richard Nixon, famously anti-communist as a senator and vice president, shocked the world as president by aggressively courting China. That overture remains one of his most lasting accomplishments.
Could Trump take refuge in his own ironclad bona fides as a harsh opponent of weak borders to provide cover for conservatives willing to compromise in order to make a grand bargain? We earnestly hope so.
He hasn’t made it easy for himself, naturally. His comments Thursday that America must limit immigration from “shithole countries” like Haiti and in Africa were deeply offensive, even humiliating. Moreover, they were so offensive they immediately cast a pall over efforts in Congress to find compromise. The Friday headline in The Wall Street Journal put it succinctly: Immigration Talks Muddled Amid Trump’s Vulgar Comments.
But this moment is too important to let the president’s vulgar talk destroy our best chance — and his — to solve this immigration puzzle.
Other, promising steps were made this week. Many senior Republican leaders have embraced the idea of treating the DACA beneficiaries with kindness. Trump himself called for a “bill of love.”
A small bipartisan group of senators also agreed in principle on a path forward. Their proposal faced a chilly reception among conservatives this week. And amid the turmoil triggered by Trump’s harsh words about Haiti, its fate was far from clear at week’s end.
Still, momentum remains behind the push to solve the DACA crisis, and that’s welcome at every level. What’s needed now, however, is presidential leadership. Trump must convince conservatives and liberals alike that the best path forward is one that sets in place a scheme to address the full immigration challenges America has faced for so long.
The 13 million who are here without legal sanction should be permitted a path out of the shadows. Whether that’s citizenship, longterm residency, or work visas — or, as likely, some combination of all three — Congress must find a solution.
Trump can help lawmakers find their courage and wisdom.
“The president is uniquely situated to come up with a solution that not only demonstrates compassion but also demonstrates security and respect for the rule of law,” Cornyn said last week.
As astonishing as it may be, we couldn’t agree more.