How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (6): The Consequences of Stalemated Wars of Attrition

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on July 6, 2012

American immigration policy is essentially stuck. One reflection of this is that an immigration policy war is being fought out at every level of our political system, in every major governmental institution, and in many civic ones as well. So far it has been less a fight to the finish than to a rough draw, though by no means yet to exhaustion. Immigration policy conflict can best be emotionally described as a roiling sub-current of anger, angst, entitlement, and resentment.

Immigration policy remains stuck because important constituents of our two major political parties have very different views of the most important aspects of that policy and neither can assemble or deploy the political muscle in any of our three major institutions to impose their views.

Liberals, who provide the core constituency of the Democratic Party, support the legalization of almost every person living and/or working in the United States in violation of our immigrations laws. They premise their views on "compassion", but these views also reflect a frank appraisal of the preferences of a large and growing ethnic group, "Hispanics", whose political support they both need and want. Democrats are aware that many members of this group have relatives or friends who would benefit from lenient immigration legalization policies.

In essence, their views lead to the presumption that those who are here, regardless of how that happened, have a legitimate expectation of staying. Or to put it another way, they are entitled to the presumption of eventual legality.

Conservatives, whose home is in the Republican Party, want an emphasis on enforcing immigration rules that have been democratically considered and voted into law. Their view is that entering the United States, working, and living here in violation of the country's immigration laws doesn't create either a presumption or an entitlement to stay here. And they feel some sense of resentment and betrayal that "elites" in both parties have colluded in many attempts to undermine that bedrock understanding.

Conservatives also support legal immigration and policies designed to help new immigrants develop emotional and civic attachments to the United States. Not very much is heard from either liberals or Democrats on these matters, which is ironic given their support for what they call "comprehensive immigration reform".

Political leaders in all three branches of government are divided by their preferences. Democrats generally take the liberal position; Republicans the conservative one. Some overlap is found at the rhetorical level because Democrats cannot afford to completely ignore enforcing the nation's immigration laws. There is also some overlap at the emotional level as Republicans, like Americans more generally, have some sympathy for those trying to make a better life for themselves and their families regardless of their immigration status.

The good news coming out of this politically and emotionally charged stalemate is that ordinary Americans — those who do believe in enforcing our immigration laws, who support legal immigration, and who want new immigrants to become a real part of the American national community — have been able to make their voices heard and their views felt.

At one time they didn't have to because there was a leadership-public consensus on these basic elements of immigration policy, but no more. In that respect the current war of attrition reflects a very basic democratic principle — namely those who are legally part of the American national community have a right to have a strong voice in policies that delineate who may become part of that community and through what means.

This is especially important given that our current immigration laws are not very restrictive either in terms of overall numbers or qualification requirements.

The less sanguine result is that is that these conflicts set Americans against each other in a very primal way because immigration policy, at base, provides one direct answer to a long standing American question: Who Are We?

In situations like these, when politics has reached a dead end, Americans have historically sought out grand compromises, and contemporary immigration policy has been no exception.

Next: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (7): The Grand Bargains That Weren't or view a list of the entire series.