The United States is a materially prosperous, physically large, and rapidly aging country with a centuries-long history of successfully assimilating immigrants. In a rational universe, the idea that America should expand legal immigration — and welcome a share of the world’s refugees proportionate to our nation’s size and resources — would be uncontroversial.
After all, adopting such policies would require no act of altruism. Given the decline in U.S. birth rates, America needs to bring in more (relatively) young, able-bodied people, or else accept inexorable economic decline. Providing a dignified retirement to America’s steadily expanding senior population will be much easier if we maximize our share of global flows of “human capital.”
Plus, from a less technocratic perspective, providing a home to the tired, poor, and/or huddled masses yearning to breathe free is a good thing in itself — what with they’re being human and all. And considering our government’s role in creating many of the geopolitical and ecological conditions that are fueling displacement, one might even say that an expansive refugee and legal immigration regime is morally necessary.
But we don’t live in an especially rational universe. Thus, the U.S. resettled just 22,491 refugees last year. And even before the Trump administration’s cuts, America was taking in fewer permanent residents on humanitarian grounds — including both refugees and asylees — than 14 other OECD nations, including countries much smaller and poorer than our own. Meanwhile, the president has pushed for cutting legal immigration in half, and treated the specter of Central American migrants ameliorating our country’s agricultural-labor shortage as a threat so ominous, even atrocities against children can be justified in the name of combating it.
But Elizabeth Warren is planning for a saner tomorrow. On Thursday, the Massachusetts senator added a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform to her exceptionally detailed campaign platform. Her plan is morally serious, technocratically sound, (probably) legislatively doomed, and politically unwise.
Taking a cue from Julián Castro, Warren’s vision abandons her party’s traditional commitment to offsetting humane immigration proposals with pounds of border-security pork. Rather, the Democratic 2020 hopeful pairs her call for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented with measures that would liberalize immigration enforcement. As Politico reports:
Warren calls for eliminating criminal penalties for people “entering the country without authorization” but would leave in place civil penalties for illegal border crossings. She also calls for separating law enforcement from immigration enforcement responsibilities, arguing that “combining these functions sows distrust and harms public safety.”
Warren says she will “reshape … from top to bottom” both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pledging to “change the culture” at the agencies and begin “focusing their efforts on homeland security efforts like screening cargo, identifying counterfeit goods, and preventing smuggling and trafficking.”
… Warren calls for various restrictions on government-enforced detention and says she would do away with private detention facilities. She vows to eliminate expedited removal proceedings, grant due process rights to people in the country illegally, and work toward “passing legislation establishing Article I judicial review for immigration cases modeled on our federal courts.”
Substantively, all of this makes good sense. The government has plenty of cheap, humane alternatives to detaining asylum seekers while they await their days in court. Given the dearth of evidence that ordinary migrants pose a greater threat to public safety than ordinary native-born Americans — and the federal government’s limited law-enforcement resources — it’s quite rational to prioritize anti-smuggling and trafficking operations over, say, rounding up and deporting the undocumented parents of American citizens.
And Warren’s other ideas are similarly sound. To stabilize deteriorating conditions in the Northern Triangle, the senator would appropriate $1.5 billion in annual aid to “programs that target crime, disrupt trafficking, address poverty, reduce sexual violence, and enhance programs for at-risk youth in Central America and throughout our hemisphere.” In one of her plan’s most eye-catching planks, the senator vows to dedicate an entire Justice Department task force to investigating allegations of abuse against migrants overseen by the Trump administration. In the past, new administrations have been reluctant to subject their predecessors’ alleged misdeeds to legal scrutiny. But if that reciprocal, “forgive-and-forget” ethos works well for the political class, it’s not ideal for discouraging future abuses or upholding the rule of law.
Finally, Warren offers an ambitious agenda for expanding legal immigration and refugee admissions, one that includes the establishment of an “Office of New Americans” that would provide newcomers with English classes and job training to help expedite their economic and social integration.
But good policy doesn’t always make for good politics; and these days, it almost never makes for tenable legislation. America’s political institutions (including the Electoral College) overrepresent the country’s most immigration-skeptical voters. Strengthening border enforcement generally polls well; foreign aid and increasing legal immigration (as opposed to maintaining existing levels) generally don’t. And considering Congress repeatedly failed to pass more moderate versions of comprehensive immigration reform back when the Republican establishment still supported that kind of thing, the notion that the U.S. Senate will be willing to pass Warren’s plan in the near-term future seems rather fanciful.
But you can’t blame a morally righteous technocrat for planning for the best.