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What do you call a problem no one wants to solve?
Immigration is again in the news following the Biden administration's decision to prevent the entry from Mexico of thousands of Haitians. In truth, though, immigration is always in the news, and has been since before the birth of the republic.
In the early 18th century, Benjamin Franklin complained about the reluctance of German immigrants to adopt the language and customs of the English majority in Pennsylvania. He feared they were becoming a divisive element in the colony and might change its existing culture and habits beyond recognition.
Franklin lost that battle, and skeptics of unfettered immigration lost every battle until the late 19th century. The forces in favor of immigration were simply too powerful. Franklin's complaint against Germans was countered by George Washington's advertisement for Germans to come to America and populate land he had purchased on speculation. As long as the country remained predominantly agricultural, the perceived need for people to fill up the empty spaces—and produce profits for people with land to sell—overpowered complaints about immigrants' unfamiliar cultural practices.
Industrialization, and the emergence of an American working class, added a new argument to the anti-immigration cause. Immigrants would steal jobs from native-born workers, or at the least suppress their wages, the critics said. In the 1880s Congress barred immigration by Chinese laborers, in response to demands from workers in California, where Chinese immigration was concentrated, that the government protect their jobs and wage rates.
This first important restriction on immigration set a precedent in another regard. The demand for cheap labor didn't go away, nor did the willingness of Chinese workers to take the low-paying jobs employers were offering. America's first immigration law gave rise to America's first illegal immigrants.
The biggest change in American immigration policy occurred in the 1920s, when Congress capped overall immigration and established different immigration quotas for different countries. The quotas favored countries that historically had provided the largest number of immigrants to the United States. The quotas thereby reflected the desire articulated by Franklin to keep immigration from unduly altering the makeup and mores of American society.
In the 1940s Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion act, not least to avoid offending China at a time when that country was a key ally in the war against Japan. Another reform, in the 1960s, emphasized family reunification and the possession of skills in short supply among native-born workers. A 1980s reform provided a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who had managed to enter the country illegally.
Since then, immigration has been debated endlessly but fruitlessly—fruitlessly, that is, if the point of the debate had been to actually reform immigration law. A prudent response in politics, and in life, when repeated efforts toward some goal produce no results, is to ask whether the real goal is different from the one professed.
Democrats and liberals, generally speaking, want fewer restrictions on immigration. Republicans and conservatives want more restrictions. Or so the two sides say. But the fact that neither side has gotten any substantial part of what it wants, in nearly four decades of trying, strongly suggests that they like the problem more than any feasible solution.
Democrats delight in painting Republicans as heartless xenophobes and racists; they calculate that images of brown-skinned children separated from their parents at the border will turn out Democratic voters who will toss out Republican incumbents. Republicans amplify every crime committed by an immigrant into an indictment of the Democrats for failing to provide security at America's borders. The strategy worked for Donald Trump in 2016; Republicans suppose it will work again in the future.
What neither side is willing to do is to describe the actual policy it would find acceptable. How many and what kind of restrictions would the Democrats agree to? How many immigrants and from what countries and circumstances would the Republicans allow?
In a negotiation, no one reasonably expects either side to begin the discussions with its bottom-line position. But someone has to make an opening bid. And in the debate over immigration, neither side has been willing to do so.
Which underscores that it's not a serious negotiation. Whatever one thinks of previous legislation on immigration, those laws were the result of genuine give-and-take on the part of proponents and opponents. We are nowhere near that.
And we won't be until a solution to the immigration problem becomes more valuable to the pols than the problem itself.