No Amnesty, No Border Security? The Questionable Premises of an Immigration Grand Bargain

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on June 22, 2010

Reports this past weekend depict a brutally frank exchange between President Obama and Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) about border control and amnesty legislation. Kyl reports that in a one-on-one meeting with the president they discussed securing the border in the context of pending legislation to enact "comprehensive immigration reform." Kyl reports the president as saying, "The problem is, . . . if we secure the border, then you all won't have any reason to support 'comprehensive immigration reform.'" He, Kyl, then interprets this sentence to mean "In other words, they're holding it hostage. They don't want to secure the border unless and until it is combined with 'comprehensive immigration reform.'"

The administration has denied both that the president said any such thing and the senator's characterization. But in the process of doing so White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer essentially confirmed Sen. Kyl's characterization of the administration's premises and calculations, to wit: "…as the President has made clear, truly securing the border will require a comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system."

The proposed legislation takes the form, as other efforts before it have as well, to fashion a "grand bargain" in which increased border security and workplace enforcement are legislated at the same time that legalization of the estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants is also undertaken.

The essence of such a "grand bargain" is that each side has something to gain to compensate it for the policy ground it has to give up in order to reach its goals. If you have nothing to give, then you have nothing to offer in exchange for what you want. And what does the Obama Administration and its allies want? Amnesty for 11-12 million illegal immigrants. And what is it will to offer in return? A promise to enforce our laws and develop methods by which immigration lawbreakers would find it difficult to get employment.

There are many severe problems with this "grand bargain," especially for the majority of Americans that want to see illegal immigration curtained and our immigration laws enforced. I take these issues up in some detain in a forthcoming fall CIS paper entitled "The Illusionary Allure of Immigration 'Grand Bargains': An Analysis of Blue Ribbon Taskforces," but here let me call attention to the questionable premises and political calculations involved here.

The premises underlying "grand bargain" immigration proposals have always been somewhat puzzling. Those supporting amnesty, including the Obama administration, would enforce immigration laws and seriously develop methods to keep undocumented immigrants from getting jobs in the United States, but they would do it only if they could also gain amnesty for the 11-12 million immigrations now living in the United States in violation of its laws.

The reason for that politically and ethically brutish stance is rather simple. If you really developed the means for keeping unauthorized immigrants from getting jobs, they couldn't support themselves in numbers anywhere near their current levels. They would be forced to move and their most likely destination would be back to the countries from which they came.

This process has a name – attrition through enforcement. And it is an immigration strategy with all the power to reverse a serious public problem that the broken-windows theory of law enforcement did for crime. If illegal immigrants can't get jobs, they can't stay, and once the word gets out, won't come.

Note again Obama's reported statement that: "The problem is, . . . if we secure the border, then you all won't have any reason to support 'comprehensive immigration reform.'" Another premise of the Obama administration's grand bargain position is that it is only by dangling the prospect of border and workplace enforcement that anything will be done to help those already living and working here; but this is not necessarily true. As Sen. Kyl says he brought up to the president, solving the enforcement part of the immigration equation might increase support for helping some portion of the illegal immigrants already living and working here.

Most surveys report a willingness on the part of the American public to support some kind of "pathway to legalization." What if, after workplace enforcement was in place, Congress considered such a pathway for those who had lived in the country for at least a decade? What if it allowed children of illegal immigrants brought here when they were children and now attending high school or college to have such a pathway? What if instead of leveling fines – that in the overall cost-benefit calculation of the economic advantages of living and working here in the United States are minimal – there was a real penalty, like being unable to partake of the preferential immigration treatment given to the families of legal immigrants?

Meanwhile, the administration continues its molasses-in-January tempo of troop placement on the border, more illegal immigrants enter the United States, more die while doing so, more crime syndicates that transport illegal immigrants prosper, and more Americans lose faith in their government's willingness or ability to enforce immigration laws.

But the administration has just indicated that it will not stand for allowing this status quo to continue. Jake Tapper, ABC's thoughtful and honest White House reporter, has just written that the Justice Department plans to file a federal lawsuit against Arizona's new immigration law as early as next week.

Who says the administration doesn't have the courage of its convictions and its cynical, hardball premises?