Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, hasn’t given up on immigration reform. He was in the Senate to watch comprehensive bills he favored fall apart in 2006, 2007, and 2013. He was one of the presidential candidates whom Donald Trump beat for the Republican nomination in 2016. Trump won that contest after saying he would deport all illegal immigrants over a two-year period.
But Trump softened on the issue after winning the nomination, and Graham now thinks he can work with him to achieve many of the aims of those earlier bills. He isn’t trying to revive comprehensive legislation one more time, but he also rejects the idea of tackling issues a la carte. If Republicans try to enact legislation that only increases enforcement of the immigration laws, he believes Democrats will block it.
Instead, he tells me, he favors a series of discrete deals.
The first one would combine ramped-up enforcement, starting with “the bad dudes,” and the legalization of illegal immigrants who came here as minors. Republicans are open to that legalization, he said, and it “would be hard for Democrats to say no to securing the border and helping these 800,000 kids have a better life.”
The second one would legalize adult illegal immigrants working in agriculture and tourism, and at the same time require employers to use the e-verify program to make sure all new hires are legal workers.
Third, Graham would legalize those remaining illegal immigrants who passed a background check and paid a fine. In return he wants to shift legal immigration toward recruiting people with high skills rather than reuniting extended families. “The immigration system of the future would be merit-based,” he says.
I opposed the previous bills that Graham supported, and I’m not completely sold on this plan. But it has enough attractive elements to make me think that those of us who are more hawkish than Graham on immigration should consider it.
The earlier bills would have substantially increased immigration, and low-skilled immigrants would have made up much of the increase. Most Americans don’t want that, and the economic case for it is weak. His current idea would not raise immigration levels.
Under earlier versions of comprehensive reform, illegal immigrants might have gotten legal status before effective enforcement measures were in place – because, for example, those measures were tied up in court. In that case, legalization could have acted as a magnet for more illegal immigration, and we would remain stuck in a cycle of illegal immigration and amnesty. This three-step sequence would reduce this risk, because Congress would enact most of the legalization after enforcement had been implemented.
One reason advocates for illegal immigrants have opposed enforcement-first bills is that they have feared that Republicans would never get around to addressing their concerns once they got those bills enacted. Because Graham’s first step would include the legalization of illegal immigrants who came here as minors, though, it might be taken as a sign of good faith.
As leery as congressmen are about trying to address immigration again, Graham believes that the expiration of President Barack Obama’s executive order granting quasi-legal status to illegal immigrants who came here as minors will be a “tripwire” forcing action. Republicans don’t want Trump to renew their status – they said it was an abuse of power when Obama granted it – but fear the political consequences of exposing them to deportation again. So they have an incentive to pass legislation granting legal status, but they will want to get something to make that legislation more congenial to conservatives.
The senator thinks he has one more thing going for him: the president. “Here’s the key: Trump can do something no other Republican can do on immigration,” Graham said. What Trump can do is persuade the voters who are most concerned about illegal immigration that he is enforcing the law, and serious about making sure it is enforced in the future.
The fact that comprehensive reform got as far as it did in the past, Graham added, suggests that congressional majorities could be assembled for many of its components. All in all, he is more hopeful than most observers that a productive immigration compromise, or series of compromises, can be reached. For that to happen, many of the Republicans who blocked previous bills would have to come along.
What are the prospects of that? Graham’s judgment: “I believe the party will follow Trump if he leads.”
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”