Most Americans have common ground on immigration. Congress should listen to them.

Rio Grande Valley Acting Sector Chief Raul Ortiz, left, observes as agents process a group of 10 Honduran immigrants, including two children and a baby in a blue striped onesie trying to cross the border near Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas. [Molly Hennessy-Fiske for the Los Angeles Times/TNS]
Rio Grande Valley Acting Sector Chief Raul Ortiz, left, observes as agents process a group of 10 Honduran immigrants, including two children and a baby in a blue striped onesie trying to cross the border near Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas. [Molly Hennessy-Fiske for the Los Angeles Times/TNS]
Published Nov. 21, 2018

On immigration, a vast area of potential policy compromise lies between the extremes of nativist restriction and open borders.

For the time being, however, politicians determined to exploit the emotions that those two positions arouse dominate the debate.

President Trump's vulgar demonization of unauthorized immigrants, coupled with his proposals to slash legal immigration, defines the morally and economically dubious right end of the spectrum. The call to "abolish ICE" — the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — from Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others defines the utterly impractical left.

The question, therefore, is not so much what to do about immigration as what to do about the polarization that keeps lawmakers from agreeing on what to do about immigration.

One response to the problem is to attack it from the supply side: to produce compromise plans, on the theory that good ideas create their own demand.

Last week, the New Center, a nonprofit Washington policy shop recently established by former Clinton administration domestic-policy aide William Galston and Weekly Standard editor at large Bill Kristol, released a proposal that, in a functional Washington, Congress and the White House would immediately consider.

Its essence is a trade: legalization of roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants already here, in exchange for tough measures against future illegal immigration.

Those brought here as minors, the "dreamers," would receive immediate permanent residency. Others would be granted a new six-year status — "registered provisional immigrant" — that would gradually lead to citizenship, provided they meet criteria such as a clean criminal record and English training.

The federal government would build a series of physical barriers, fencing and walls, where it makes practical sense, on the U.S.-Mexico border; crack down on visa overstays with the help of advanced biometric technology; and implement a universal E-Verify system to ensure that employers hire only authorized workers.

The current annual legal immigration level, approximately 1 million lawful permanent residents, would remain in place, but there would be a major shift away from family reunification in favor of skills-based selection of newcomers.

The arbitrary "diversity" immigration program that awards visas by lottery to countries that send relatively few immigrants would be eliminated and its 55,000 annual admissions redistributed to other categories of newcomers.

A strong selling point of the proposal is that, unlike the nostrums currently being served up by Trump and the Democratic left, the New Center's compromise actually corresponds to a broad spectrum of public opinion.

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Some two-thirds of the U.S. public opposes deporting all 11 million unauthorized immigrants, according to a June 2016 Gallup poll. A similar proportion favors putting the dreamers on a path to citizenship, according to a Monmouth University poll. Sixty-four percent favored putting all unauthorized immigrants who meet certain conditions on a path to citizenship, according to a 2017 PRRI survey.

Meanwhile, there is overwhelming opposition to abolishing ICE, and a September 2017 Post-ABC News poll found that 79 percent support employer verification. Support for a combination of physical and electronic barriers at the southern border is less strong, but, at 54 percent in a June 2018 Harvard-Harris Poll, significant.

The basic picture is that most Americans want a relatively open door to immigrants, consistent with the country's heritage as a refuge for the oppressed and a land of opportunity, but they want assurances that the annual influx will be managed and lawful. That doesn't seem too much to ask.

One could quibble with the New Center's plan around the edges: E-Verify would have to be well-designed indeed to prevent legitimate workers from being mistakenly screened out or unauthorized ones allowed in. Employers would bristle at serious sanctions for those who don't use E-Verify.

The annual ceiling of 1 million legal immigrants may actually be too low to maintain adequate labor-force growth for the U.S. economy, given the country's declining birth rate.

In essence, though, it's a sound proposal, not too much different, in principle, from the compromises that passed the Senate with bipartisan supermajorities in 2006 and 2013, only to founder in the Republican-controlled House, where cries of "amnesty" met the proposal's provision for legalization of unauthorized immigrants.

As the New Center proposal acknowledges, not all opposition to the various elements of its proposed compromise are based on bigotry or bad faith, or even on partisan politics. Immigration, both legal and illegal, brings more benefits than costs in the aggregate, but the benefits are diffuse and the costs are concentrated — on displaced workers in specific industries; in local communities obliged to school and house newcomers.

By now, however, normal differences of opinion resulting from immigration's disparate impact have metastasized into a politics of reaction and counterreaction. The two parties are further apart on immigration, and more in the grip of their respective extremes, than they were in 2006 or even 2013.

The majority in the middle must have a say, if the United States is to remain both a nation of immigrants and a truly representative democracy.

Charles Lane is a Washington Post editorial writer specializing in economic and fiscal policy.

© 2018 Washington Post