Published January 22, 2019
Ann Coulter’s tweets blasting President Trump’s immigration speech Saturday surely heartened many Trump enthusiasts. But they are going to have to get used to a hard truth: it’s either a deal with “amnesty” attached or nothing.
I can already hear the shouting: “But Trump won!” Yes, he did. But he won with the support of many Americans who are perfectly OK with an amnesty-for-the-wall deal. And virtually everyone who opposes Trump want some form of amnesty and don’t want the wall.
The poll data have been abundantly clear about this for years. In 2012, the presidential election exit poll showed that Americans backed giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status over deportation by a margin of 65 percent to 28 percent. That margin got even larger in 2016, with legal status favored over deportation by 70 percent to 25 percent. No policy opposed by two-thirds of Americans, and vociferously opposed by a near majority, is going to become law any time soon.
Even Republicans and Trump voters support amnesty over deportation. Interpolating from the exit poll data, a bit more than half of Trump’s 2016 general election voters favored amnesty. Only a bit more than 40 percent supported deportation, little changed from the share of Romney voters who also backed deportation in 2012.
Republican primary exit polls in 2016 also showed this pattern. Pollsters asked the legal status versus deportation question of Republican voters in 20 states. Only those in Alabama and Mississippi narrowly favored deportation. Voters in every other state favored legal status, including majorities in 15 of the 20 states and in all of the states queried that flipped from Obama to Trump.
Only a political neophyte would pursue a deportation-focused immigration policy in the face of such data. Trump often makes unforced errors, but on the whole he is extremely shrewd—hence his speech on Saturday.
Coulter and her allies on the deportation-focused Right must choose. Do they want to use the presence of their strongest possible ally in the White House to pursue the best deal possible? Or do they want to dig in and hope public opinion changes?
The latter option sometimes works, but normally only after the passage of time or the occurrence of a searing event beyond political activists’ control. It’s taken liberals over 100 years to get a slim majority of Americans to be mildly in favor of government-financed universal health insurance coverage. People concerned about illegal immigration know they don’t have a century to wait.
That suggests pushing Trump to strike a deal is the best option, the one likeliest to deliver something of genuine value. And that in turn means the Coulters of the world should start pushing for some real elements of such a deal now while they have some leverage.
Significantly tighter border security, including border barriers of some sort in all feasible areas, should be one non-negotiable item. No deal would be worth the paper it’s written on without giving the government the means to enforce the law as written. Other nations with strong, enforceable migration policies are either protected by water (Australia and Britain), the United States and the Arctic (Canada), or border barriers (Israel and many Central European countries). Border barriers are not sufficient to enforce immigration laws, but they are necessary.
Stopping there, however, ultimately would be futile. We have seen from our experiences with prohibition and drug laws that so long as the demand to break the law is present, the supply will come if at all humanly possible. That’s why some form of mandatory use of e-Verify is also a non-negotiable part of a deal. Immigrants come to America in search of work, and unless employers are prevented from offering work to non-legal immigrants many will look the other way and not check too closely. Proof of citizenship or legal status should be required as part of any deal including widespread amnesty.
Amnesty provisions also differ in their scope. Children of illegal immigrants brought here by their parents, the so-called Dreamers, are the most sympathetic amnesty applicants. Perhaps they should be given a path to citizenship while their parents are merely given legal status that can never be upgraded without congressional approval. Proof that amnesty applicants complied with all laws, especially those pertaining to filing state and local income tax returns, should be a must.
Many will complain that this proposal looks too much like the Gang of Eight’s aborted deal from 2013, or the compromise that President Bush tried and failed to shepherd through Congress in the last decade. That may well be true. But we have had an ongoing debate over immigration policy for much of the past 15 years and American public opinion is still pretty fixed in favor of a genuine amnesty-for-borders deal. The tide if anything is running in the opposite direction, as each year millions of new immigrants and their children replace native-born Americans who pass away among America’s voters. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.
There are those who will resist this advice and consider it cowardice or worse. Ronald Reagan used to have a word for this type of conservative: “ultras.” Time after time, as governor and as president, he would find a deal he proposed subject to opposition from precincts further on the Right. He would always chastise them, usually in private, for wanting to “jump off the cliffs with all colors flying” rather than “take half a loaf and come back to fight for more.” Not every deal he championed worked out as he hoped, but they all helped him preserve his political legitimacy at crucial times. And that helped him garner support for the policies that changed America and the world.
Those who want to leap before they look should think again. Sometimes last-ditch resistance can be glorious, as in the case of the Spartans who died at Thermopylae or the Texans who died at the Alamo. But those deaths mattered only because they bought time for others to stage a more successful resistance. Unless they want to see their hopes utterly dashed, resolute immigration advocates need to get in the game now and help their champion pull some meaningful victory from the jaws of potentially catastrophic defeat.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).