Immigration Politics Are Killing the Debate Over Immigration Policy

The latest crisis at America's southern border isn't the result of short-term policy changes but of long-term bureaucratic failures.


When it comes to immigration (legal or illegal), I still take cues from that radical social-justice warrior Ronald Reagan. "(I)t makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss," the Gipper said in a 1977 radio address after a New England town restricted apple pickers to U.S. citizens and then couldn't find enough people to do the work.

"One thing is certain in this hungry world; no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the field for lack of harvesters," he added. Reagan didn't even shy away from the A-word. "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," Reagan said in his 1984 presidential debate.

That adds a little context, now that the Republican Party has become the party of Donald Trump. Our recently departed president was devoted not just to building a border wall and clamping down on illegal immigration—but to dramatically reducing the number of immigrants and refugees who can come to the United States in a legal manner.

Trump's rhetoric, of course, was a far cry from Reagan's. It's perfectly legitimate to debate immigration policy, but when Republicans describe immigrants as killers and invaders, that's not a policy debate. It's the use of immigration as a dividing line in an obvious attempt to rally conservative base voters. The issue hasn't subsided with the new administration.

Joe Biden had promised a more humane policy, but so far the results aren't good. "Officials barred nonprofit lawyers who conduct oversight from entering a Border Patrol tent where thousands of children and teenagers are detained," AP reported. The new administration has "refused or ignored dozens of requests from the media for access to detention sites"— something even Trump didn't do.

The latest fracas at the border, with a recent surge of asylum seekers from Central America, has turned expectedly into yet another partisan grudge match. Conservatives claim that the new Democratic administration essentially is inviting refugees to the country because it has dropped plans for the wall and loosened up restrictions.

Yet the latest influx isn't the result of short-term change—but long-term bureaucratic failures. "The immigration system at the border, which was built up in the 1990s, with single, job-seeking adults from Mexico in mind, was not designed to handle a population seeking asylum on this scale," argued The New Yorker's Jonathan Blitzer. "(I)t takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim, and there's now a backlog of 1.3 million pending cases."

As I've argued repeatedly, most government policy has little to do with the nominal head of state—and more to do with the permanent bureaucracy. Conservatives rightly complain about the failure of every imaginable state and federal bureau, from California's Employment Development Department to the federal Department of Education. They refuse to acknowledge that our immigration and security bureaus aren't any better than those others.

Stopping illegal immigration is the equivalent of trying to stop water from flowing down a hill. Labor is like any other market, including illegal drugs or anything else for that matter. As long as there's plenty of supply and demand, there will always be a way around whatever regulatory barriers the government puts in the way. On an ethical note, it's hard to be too angry at people who are doing what we would do if we faced similar impoverished circumstances.

There's no solving the immigration mess in one short column, but it would be nice if politicians from both parties stopped using the issue to clobber one another and tried to work out reform proposals in a reasonable way. The bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was signed into law—but it obviously didn't solve the ongoing problem.

No single piece of legislation—especially one filled with contradictions and compromises—will fix any long-running problem. That law created a path for citizenship for many illegal immigrants, but also ramped up enforcement against companies that hired people without legal status.

Still, there's got to be a better way than the GOP's enforcement-only approach—or California's progressive zeal to discard the meaning of citizenship. We could start by calming down debate and trying to pass reasonable measures rather than fight the same futile war on illegal immigration that we fight on illegal drugs, with similar inhumane and useless results.

We could create a process for people who want to come here to do so in a timely manner rather than force them to spend years mired in bureaucracy. We could legalize the dreamers. We could even develop a guest-worker program that lets people work the farms and go home, as Reagan had supported. Then again, the late president must have been a crazy radical who didn't understand a good wedge issue when he saw one.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.