Former President George W. Bush has a new book of portraits of immigrants. Writing about the book for The Washington Post, he said his main goal was to tell immigrants’ stories and “humanize” the debate, not to lay out a specific agenda for immigration policy. But he also wanted to share some “principles for reform.”
They are familiar principles: They’re largely the same ones that underlay two legislative efforts when he was president, and another attempt when Barack Obama was. After all these years, maybe it is time to learn from these failures rather than going down the same road again.
Bush thinks the U.S. should grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who grew up here, and allow other illegal immigrants to earn citizenship if they meet conditions such as learning English. He wants a “modernized” asylum system that accommodates legitimate refugees faster while preventing abuse.
To stop illegal immigration, he would both strengthen border enforcement and promote economic development among “our neighbors.” Temporary work programs would expand if he had his way, as would legal immigration “focused on employment and skills.”
Yet essentially the same policy mix failed to become law under a Republican president working with a Republican Congress (in 2006); a Republican president working with a Democratic Congress (in 2007); a Democratic president working with a Democratic Congress (in 2009-10, when such legislation wasn’t even taken up); and a Democratic president working with a divided Congress (in 2013).
On each occasion, legislation of the kind Bush likes had the support of many high-ranking politicians from both parties, business groups, religious leaders and editorial boards. But opposition, mostly from conservative Republicans, blocked it. The closest Bush comes to accounting for his formidable coalition’s inability to get its way is the remark that “the issue has been exploited in ways that do little credit to either party.”
It’s a comment that undercuts the hope he wishes to instill. It implies that legislation is doomed unless politicians have become more high-minded during the last decade — which is not apparent at first glance, or even second — or the voter sentiments they were exploiting have weakened. But Bush does not identify what those sentiments were, let alone offer reason to think they have diminished.
He mentions them only indirectly, when he says the public needs “confidence” in the immigration system. That’s the nub of the problem. A lot of Americans, even many of those who are open to such policies as legalizing millions of illegal immigrants, do not have confidence that the government will enforce the laws any more avidly or effectively in the future than they have done in the past.
They therefore fear that today’s legalization is just a prelude to tomorrow’s. They want to see “enforcement first,” which has sometimes been a Republican slogan. And there is distrust on the other side of the debate, too. Progressives fear that enforcement first would mean legalization never.
For Bush’s vision to prevail, he most needs to reach the right-leaning voters who have been resistant to it. His remarks about enforcement go part of the way toward that purpose. But he doesn’t explain why we should have any increase in low-skilled immigration.
Why shouldn’t people on the bottom rungs of the economy, native-born Americans and immigrants alike, worry that an influx of newcomers will undermine their position? It’s not a question he feels compelled to address.
Nor does Bush explain why, if we need more high-skilled immigrants, we have to raise the total level of immigration instead of changing its composition. What’s in it for the people who are already here? The standard answer is that it makes us richer overall, although there is very little evidence it has more than a negligible effect.
But Bush doesn’t give that answer, or another one. It seems not to occur to him that he should try to make the case that expanded immigration is in the interest of most Americans.
A lot of Bush’s objectives are desirable and even admirable. He is right that people who have known no other home than the U.S. should be able to become citizens. It’s hard to imagine a persuasive argument against him on asylum.
For his good ideas to make progress, though, will require their advocates to address the concerns of skeptics, discard inessential items on the agenda and proceed in increments to build confidence. The alternative is to keep retracing the steps that have led to decades of failure.