In past weeks, there has been an increasingly strident debate over immigration "reform", particularly in the Senate, which has repeatedly exhibited paralysis (because of self-imposed filibuster and cloture rules requiring 60 votes to get anything done, rather than a simple majority). The impasse has led to inability to pass a budget for the fiscal year that's now half over, and the Democratic minority has used the opportunity to engage in fiscal hostage-taking to demand an amnesty for illegal aliens. A select number of Republicans, whose views on immigration mirror those of the Democrats, have joined in the effort.
The shape and size of the amnesty is amorphous, with the proposals growing ever larger, though the nucleus was supposedly to legalize the 700,000 or so aliens who benefited from the constitutionally questionable Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program instituted by the Obama administration.
Donald Trump on the campaign trail said he would end DACA because it was clearly an example of executive overreach. His position shifted as president: Instead, DACA was to be phased out over a period of many months, with two-year renewals being given in the interim. Trump then opened Pandora's box by inviting Congress to legislate the problem away (they had considered and rejected such legislation in the past, which is one reason Obama took matters into his own hands by implementing the equivalent of an imperial decree).
Trump went so far as to say that he would consider reopening the program if Congress failed to act – a threat he has repeated in recent days, despite earlier acknowledgements that the program was illegal and unconstitutional, and despite the fact that he is undercutting his own Justice Department, which is litigating the DACA shutdown in federal court.
How did we get here? The answer to that lies in the mid-1980s.
It was Republican president Ronald Reagan who firmly stood behind, and ultimately signed into law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which contained a massive amnesty that forgave and provided lawful status to roughly 2.7 million illegal aliens from nations all over the world.
The legalization provisions were billed as a one-time, never-again amnesty, because IRCA was a "great compromise" that included enforcement measures which would ensure no more massive build-ups of aliens living illegally in the United States.
IRCA was a massive failure. The enforcement provisions were pretty much prospective in nature, providing for a gradual phase-in, and IRCA didn't in fact appropriate funds for resources needed at the border, in the interior, or in the workplace, to make it a success.
In fact, funding never came. Despite promises made to garner amnesty, once it was in place, enforcement suffered absolute neglect. In the out years following IRCA, there was a failure of political will in the legislative and executive branches; the capital and human resources weren't sought and weren't apportioned to interior or worksite enforcement efforts, and those given the border were too little, too late. I recall many years while employed at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) when there were fewer than 1,000 investigators. At the time, there were more Capitol Police officers guarding Congress than there were INS agents charged with conducting all enforcement work in the interior of the entire United States.
Even the amnesty provisions were of questionable value, and became the source of nearly 30 years of litigation by applicants who appealed denials of legalization. What is more, the program was overwhelmed with fraud at giant regional processing centers where examiners labored endlessly without any personal interaction with the applicants, for instance to determine credibility or press questions about documents or affidavits submitted. They became the equivalent of diploma mills, in this case the "diploma" being a green card to the happy recipients.
The result of IRCA's failure, and the unwillingness to fund and support viable immigration enforcement, is in front of our eyes: instead of diminishing through attrition and compliance, the illegal population ballooned after the IRCA amnesty "reset" to its present level of 11 or 12 million. What's more, about half of the illegal-alien population of the U.S. consists of visa overstays, not border jumpers. Yet our visa-issuing policies and port inspection processes remain ossified and ineffectual.
We are beset with intractable issues involving parents who over the years smuggled their children here in the hundreds of thousands, with no effective effort to put a stop to this dangerous, parentally negligent practice; and the border is as wild and unpoliceable as ever. In fact, enforcement statistics from Fiscal Year 2017 show that nearly half of all border apprehensions involved minors and family units. This should be a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that an amnesty today won't be needed again in a few short years. On the contrary, calls for amnesty act as a beacon to others to begin their trek northward in hopes of cashing in, by fair means or foul.
Into this mix strode Donald Trump, riding a wave of populist sentiment to the White House. His rallying cry was Make America Great Again (MAGA), and his popularity was based in large measure on his promise to restore the rule of law to immigration enforcement. Then came his public DACA turnaround, which no doubt came as a great surprise to his supporters and, as surely as night follows day, we are now witnessing the inevitable fallout from that utterance.
It has led to a hue and cry that Congress and the president must again hit the amnesty re-set button, although this time around one doesn't hear the "just this time, then never again" promise made so vociferously in the past. Advocates don't think they need to make it, and politicians who purport to be in favor of amnesty only in return for enforcement trade-offs aren't quite so eager to put their reputations on the line with such assurances, though they plod doggedly forward as if they must pass legislation, however poorly crafted.
In response to a plaintive call from members of Congress (mostly senators), the White House has now issued a set of principles that form its framework for what would be acceptable before the president would be amenable to signing immigration legislation that includes an amnesty. The framework is, in a word, disappointing.
By the White House's own estimates, the amnesty would cover nearly two million aliens. There are substantial reasons to think this is a significant underestimate, based on the nation's experience with IRCA. Fraud alone could increase that estimate by 20 or 30 percent. Then there are the methodologies used to arrive at the figure – like those used by the Congressional Budget Office, there is likely a "fudge factor" based on aliens who will not apply, or will be denied, that in the hard light of day won't hold up, which in turn means that the figure is pretty much an unreliable lowball.
One begins to wonder whether MAGA still stands for Make America Great Again, or has instead morphed into "My Amnesty Give-Away".
It would appear that this president, who campaigned on promises to restore integrity to the immigration system, is quite possibly set to preside over the largest amnesty ever seen in this country, perhaps even the world.