February 27, 2023 – By Jordan Heller

Photo: Chris Clor via Getty Images

With a Republican Party in thrall to its extreme right wing now in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, most advocates for comprehensive immigration reform are wringing their hands. Though Rep. Maria Salazar’s ambitious Dignity Act will soon be reintroduced, the widely prevailing view is that any congressional action on the country’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants will have to wait for a Congress other than this one. But what if a clear impasse on comprehensive reform is exactly what is needed for Congress to move forward on immigration?

In Ideaspace’s wide-ranging report on the prospects for immigration reform in the 118th Congress, published earlier this month, Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from California, indicated that a perceived impasse may indeed present an opportunity. “Comprehensive immigration reform is maybe an elephant that has to be eaten one bite at a time,” said the congressman, who agreed that it’s highly unlikely that Speaker Kevin McCarthy or House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan will allow a floor vote on comprehensive immigration reform. “So, for me, I’m willing to take smaller bites.” 

Congress last overhauled the U.S. immigration system in 1986 when Pres. Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. In the quintessential grand bargain, IRCA legalized the nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants then in the country in return for employer sanctions designed to curtail illegal hiring and hence discourage future unauthorized entry. The curtailment famously didn’t work. Instead, the estimated population of new undocumented immigrants has grown in the intervening years to more than 11 million. Major congressional efforts to build a new grand bargain failed in 2007 and again in 2013. Over the last decade, comprehensive immigration reform has become more a snowball fight than an earnest policy debate, and certainly has not become a piece of legislation for lawmakers to vote on. So why not try something different? Why not try an incremental approach?

Dip Patel, who founded the nonprofit organization Improve the Dream to advocate for Documented Dreamers, suggests that an incremental approach, while slow by definition, could ultimately achieve the desired result. “Over the last 20 years, imagine if every year we were able to get a narrow improvement in the immigration system,” he said in the above-mentioned report. “Every year, a narrow improvement. That, essentially, by now, would’ve taken care of most of what we want in comprehensive reform.”

The last Congress alone produced plenty of narrow pieces of legislation with strong bipartisan support that aim to reform the immigration system piecemeal. The Niskanen Center, a nonpartisan think tank dedicated to the promotion of an open society, identified 11 such bills that presented “an opportunity to reassert congressional authority” on immigration. They included the Conrad State 30 and Physician Access Reauthorization Act, which would bring sorely needed foreign doctors to U.S. healthcare deserts, the America’s Children Act, which would provide a pathway to legalization for some 200,000 Documented Dreamers who face deportation upon turning 21, and the Temporary Family Visitation Act, which would create a new visa for foreign nationals who wish to visit relatives in the U.S.

In the course of my reporting on immigration matters in Congress, I have heard repeatedly that lawmakers felt they had to save their political capital for a comprehensive solution. As Rep. Peters told me, “I’ve heard that a lot, ‘Don’t go for anything small, because we’re going for a big immigration reform.’” 

Since “big immigration reform” is a long shot in the 118th Congress, this may be a moment to practice the art of the possible. Casey Higgins, who served as policy advisor to former Speaker Paul Ryan, underscored this point at a recent American Bar Association event. With comprehensive immigration reform, she argued, “Every member has a reason to vote no instead of every member having a reason to vote yes, and it has collapsed under its own weight. Instead, take steps in the right direction to do confidence-building measures that show we are not completely inept, that we can do this without the political ramifications burning the place down. We can build the confidence to do more, and more, and more.”

If lawmakers can spend the next two years racking up small immigration wins and building confidence with niche legislation, conditions in Congress may grow more favorable for a grand bargain on immigration reform. Indeed, intervening incremental progress and rising confidence may even mean that when the moment arrives for the next grand bargain, it won’t have to be so grand.

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