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ART HOBSON: Immigration deal essential

Compromise a necessity for good of the nation

Unbending ideology is the enemy of democracy. We see this in nations doomed to terrorism by rigid religious beliefs. We see it in the authoritarian government and failed economies of nations led by extremists of either the left or the right.

And we see it in our own fractured politics, for example, the national divide over immigration.

This problem was entirely avoidable. In 1986, Congress enacted sweeping immigration reform and President Reagan signed it. It provided a path to citizenship for about 3 million of 5 million illegal immigrants. It was also supposed to stop illegal immigration by means of increased border security and, for the first time, penalize employers of illegal immigrants. But Congress didn't adequately finance border security, and it placated business interests by watering down workplace enforcement. The predictable result was that the number of illegal immigrants, far from declining, ballooned from 2 million in 1987 to 11 million today, making things worse.

There should be at least one point of agreement about today's problem: Surely all Americans can agree on the importance of stopping illegal immigration. Illegal residents are vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, and must live out their lives as fugitives. Individually, most illegal immigrants are great people, but this permanent "shadow class" impairs America and endangers the immigrants themselves.

As of this writing, many conservatives seem dead-set against a path to citizenship for any illegal immigrant, including even the 700,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigrants. On the other side, many liberals seem dead-set against President Trump's proposed border wall, against ending extended family migration, and against ending the visa lottery program that promotes diversity. Given narrow Republican control of Congress, it should be obvious that both sides must compromise.

Like most liberals, I'm dubious about a wall. It will cost money that could be better spent elsewhere, and will be too porous to significantly stop illegal immigration. But democracy is about compromise. A deal where Trump gets his wall and liberals get amnesty for 1.8 million, including the DACA residents, as Trump appears to be offering these days, is a good deal. Concerns about costs of a wall could be negotiated by including a cost limit in the bill.

We need a solution, and we dare not repeat the Reagan-era mistake. Any immigration bill must stop illegal immigration. It seems to me that workplace enforcement is the effective, fair and humane way to accomplish this. People won't come here illegally if they can't get a job. As Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice, put it in 2013, "The border security issue is, at this point, 90 to 95 percent solved. Employer verification is ... less than 10 percent solved."

America presently has no foolproof workplace enforcement method. Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham proposed in 2010 a foolproof Social Security card system that would include biometric information. This or something similar must be in any compromise bill, because all bets about immigration will be off if illegal immigration increases in the wake of the legalization of current immigrants. Business will be the main opponent. The problem will be to get the business community to give up their attraction to illegal and therefore exploitable immigrants.

In return for the wall and ending both family migration and the visa lottery, Trump has offered to create a path to citizenship for more than twice the number of reported DACA residents. Democrats should not necessarily accept this offer at face value, but they should at least negotiate on it. Compromises are surely possible about family migration and the visa lottery. For example, Canada's immigration system has a merit-based component, a good idea that U.S. liberals and conservatives alike should be able to embrace. Legalization of the DACA residents is worth a lot. They arrived here through no fault of their own, they deserve citizenship, America benefits from their legalization and public opinion recognizes this.

In today's partisan atmosphere, compromise is anathema to some. But compromise is essential.

As mentioned, some on both sides have expressed strong reservations about a compromise involving a wall and a path to citizenship for DACA residents. But to assume such a deal is therefore "dead on arrival" would be to misunderstand how democracy must work if it is to succeed. America will be the winner if Congress can reason together toward a compromise that gives DACA residents and others a path to citizenship and ends illegal immigration insofar as it can be ended.

Commentary on 02/13/2018

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