Amnesty: Comprehensive or Piecemeal?

POLITICS & POLICY
President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media as he departs for travel to Milwaukee, Wis., from the South Lawn of the White House, February 16, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Democrats’ latest comprehensive immigration reform bill was finally introduced today in the House and Senate. (Here’s the Senate version, sponsored by Menendez and 20 of his Democratic colleagues; Linda Sanchez is the House sponsor.) The measure, outlined by President Biden on his first day in office, is a parody that almost makes the Gang of Eight legislation pushed by Obama look moderate.

As I noted a few weeks ago, the Biden bill is a radical departure from previous immigration measures, which at least pretended to care about enforcement of the immigration law after everyone here was amnestied. The three main thrusts of the 353-page legislation are amnesty for everyone here as of the first of the year, reductions in immigration enforcement, and a doubling of legal immigration. (It also provides taxpayer-funded lawyers for illegal immigrants and a gusher of grant money for anti-borders-activist groups, but then you probably could have guessed that.)

Everyone seems to acknowledge that the bill is dead on arrival. With the “Biden Effect” at the border — increased apprehensions (and releases) as migrants take their cues from the new laxity at the border — some Democrats are starting to get scared; South Texas Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez told Politico, “The way we’re doing it right now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster in the middle of a pandemic. . . . Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.”

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This is where Plan B comes in. The online subhead of the New York Times story sums it up: “After two decades of failure, advocates for the broadest possible overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws are considering a new strategy: pressing for piecemeal legislation.”

This is new. The approach has always been to insist on a single massive bill, giving every interest group its desired immigration goodies as a way of creating a broad coalition. The only problem was that this failed spectacularly under both Bush and Obama. 

The “piecemeal” amnesties would not be small. The pieces of the larger bill that Democrats are likely to push separately include the Dream Act (for illegal immigrants who came as minors), the Promise Act (for illegal immigrants granted “Temporary” Protected Status), and the Agricultural Workers Adjustment Act (“adjustment” meaning amnesty). Based on CBO and other estimates, these three “piecemeal” measures could amnesty some 3.5 million people, maybe more. That’s more than the 2.7 million amnestied by the notorious 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was supposed to solve the illegal immigration problem but whose broken promises instead have poisoned the debate.

Like the bloated comprehensive measure, the piecemeal proposals would not result in a similar broken promise — because they don’t even pretend to provide for future enforcement, all but guaranteeing the buildup of another large illegal population in the future.

It gets worse. The comprehensive bill’s “no-illegal-left-behind” amnesty for all who arrived by January 1 lays out an eight-year path to citizenship. But that’s a catch-all provision for those who wouldn’t be covered by the Dream, Promise, and farmworker measures. The millions benefitting from those piecemeal amnesties would get green cards immediately and be able to apply for citizenship in three years, instead of the usual five years for most green-card holders. I think many immigration hawks exaggerate the role of political calculation in the Left’s support for de facto unlimited immigration, but not here — the three-year citizenship plan is a transparent attempt to create new voters, especially in Texas and Florida, to help drag Kamala Harris over the finish line in 2024.

Only if the Democrats (and their Republican fellow-travelers) fail even with this piecemeal approach is there a possibility that they’ll be willing to consider compromise. A piecemeal measure, for instance, that upgraded only the 700,000 DACA beneficiaries to green-card status in exchange for mandatory E-Verify and an end to the ridiculous Visa Lottery (which Biden’s bill would increase!) is the kind of thing that could be both good policy and politically achievable. But that’s not going to happen so long as amnesty supporters think they have a chance to push through egregious measures such as the one introduced today, whether in whole or in part.

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