How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (7): The Grand Bargains That Weren't

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on July 13, 2012

Americans love compromise. It's in their cultural and historical DNA. Even better, it is entirely consistent with their wish and support of anything that seems "fair".

Americans expect and support hard bargaining, but when the differences have been narrowed, what better way to reach an agreement than to "split the difference"? When you've reached that point where it seems there isn't that much separating you, walking away on principle seems churlish. After all, haven't you already negotiated to the point where you have gotten a good portion of what you wanted?

Or at least that's the theory.

In reality, grand bargains are to compromise as shotgun weddings are to marrying for love. They wind up in the same category, compromise in one case, marriage in the other; but they reflect very different underlying motivations and, likely, very different outcomes.

Grand bargains are not attempts to reconcile or narrow strong differences; they are attempts to bridge them while leaving the underlying disagreements intact. Needless to say, they often don't have a very good track record for solving intractable underlying problems — think the Missouri Compromise, "land for peace" in the Middle East, and of course, "comprehensive immigration reform".

The basic premise of grand bargains is that each side will give up something it views as a major goal in order to get something else it equally wants. In the case of immigration, the trade has always revolved around trading enforcement for legalization. That is, in general those with a liberal/Democratic perspective on immigration would agree to enforcement measures, while in return those with a conservative/GOP perspective would agree to provide a generous measure of legalization to illegal aliens already here.

It bears noting that there is something ethically remiss in a position that declines to enforce immigration laws already arrived at through democratic process in the hopes of gaining policy advantage for positions that are not strong enough to garner bill-passing levels of support.

The prototypical grand bargain was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986. That act criminalized knowingly hiring illegal aliens. That, in turn, was based on the reasonable premise that if illegal aliens were not able to find employment, they would have less incentive to enter the United States in violation of our immigration laws.

In order to gain that basic workplace enforcement measure, advocates had to agree to allow illegal aliens already living and working in the United States to regularize their immigration status. This resulted in nearly 3 million illegal aliens becoming legal immigrants.

This grand bargain was supposed to "wipe the slate clean" for effective immigration control (see p. 20 of linked report), but after it went into effect the number of illegal aliens in the country increased dramatically to its present 11-12 million figure.

Why that happened is of some interest because it holds important lessons for any attempts at forging a grand bargain after the 2012 presidential election.

NEXT: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (8): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail or view a list of the entire series.