Like any presidential election year, 2016 isn’t likely to see many policy breakthroughs. But it may be the year when we finally come to terms with the disastrous futility of the crusade for “comprehensive” immigration reform.
For more than a decade, policy makers have disdained targeted reforms of particular elements of immigration policy. Instead, advocates have sought to consolidate major expansions in all forms of immigration into one massive package, in the hope that it would attract a coalition broad enough—reaching from the Chamber of Commerce to agricultural employers to Google to La Raza to the ACLU—to roll over opposition to any particular expansion and thereby avoid the need to compromise. About all that immigration critics have been offered is the enforcement of existing laws.
This has turned the debate into an all-or-nothing fight, encouraging the parties to the argument to exhibit the most extreme versions of themselves. Thus the familiar media spectacle of fearful xenophobia squaring off against self-loathing post-Americanism—even though very few Americans of any political persuasion answer to either description. This comprehensive approach has now been tried unsuccessfully under presidents and congresses of both parties. As the current presidential campaign suggests, Republicans in particular are unlikely to try it again.
Instead, we can hope for targeted efforts to address specific challenges and needs. This new approach could recognize, for instance, that there is now a much stronger case for more high-skilled immigration than for more low-skilled immigration (for reasons of integration, fiscal prudence and pressures in the labor market). It could acknowledge that the current policy on family reunification is too broad. It could seek a real compromise on the status of people who entered the country illegally but have long resided here—perhaps through legalization short of citizenship.
The goal should be incremental compromises that make our immigration policy more coherently serve national interests—more restrictive in some respects, more open in others. It won’t all happen this year, but grasping the futility of the comprehensive approach would be a start.
Mr. Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.