During his 2020 campaign, that was how Joe Biden characterized America’s immigration policies in the Trump era. On his first day in office, the new president announced an ambitious reform. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It would raise caps on legal immigration. It would increase aid for Central America. It touched all the progressive erogenous zones.
And it was dead on arrival. “It’s such a progressive wish list that it’s almost counterproductive,” a pro-immigration lobbyist told me. By summer, the reform effort had stalled, migrants were flooding the border, the Democrats were divided, and the Republicans were demagoguing. Just like always.
For the country, as well as for immigrants and their families and employers, the cost of our never-ending immigration crisis has been very high. Among its consequences was the presidency of Donald Trump, who could not have reached the White House without the disruptive energy that immigration unleashed. In fact, if you had to pick a date when America launched itself toward Trumpism, June 28, 2007, would be a good choice.
Immigration was on the floor of the Senate. A bipartisan coalition had revived what was then—and still is—the logical compromise: stricter controls at the borders and at job sites, more legal immigration (especially of skilled workers), and a path to citizenship. Had the compromise passed, “it would have changed the politics,” Jim Kolbe, who was then a House Republican representing an Arizona border district, recently told me. “It would have been seen as putting the immigration issue behind us.”
Instead, the bill failed, badly. A disappointed Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, said, “I had hoped for a bipartisan accomplishment, and what we got was a bipartisan defeat.”
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