A Deficit of Trust Impedes Immigration Reform

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When Congress last attempted immigration reform with the legislation sponsored by Ted Kennedy and John McCain in early 2007, both sides offered significant compromises that I thought at least laid the groundwork for an ultimate agreement. But when support for that bill quickly fell apart, the postmortems in the press blamed everything from conservative opposition to amnesty of any kind for illegals to liberal opposition to abandoning our current family-based system of legal immigration in favor of one that emphasized skills.

What I heard from many ordinary folks, however, was something quite different. They disliked the bill because it had so many compromises in it that they doubted it would ever become a reality, even if passed by Congress. After all, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the so-called Simpson-Mazzoli Act, had promised many things we'd never gotten, from a new verification system for employers wishing to check the status of workers, to a clearly articulated and enforceable path to legal status for illegals.

Successive administrations let the development of a verification system languish, while the federal immigration bureaucracy soon began simply rubber-stamping applications for legalization, either because it was overwhelmed or opposed to the details of legalization imposed by Congress (or both). The same failings, or something like them, would happen with the McCain-Kennedy bill, many critics worried, so the details of the compromise were irrelevant.

I wasn't the only one who discerned that this was a powerful objection to a compromise reform bill. Two years later the Brookings Institution and the Duke University Kenan Center put together a coalition of groups across the ideological spectrum and asked them to hammer out a model proposed immigration reform bill that might work in Washington. The details of the bill were not startlingly different from what previously had been proposed, again ranging from better enforcement of existing laws to a revamped legal system of immigration emphasizing skills, but a crucial element of the Brookings-Kenan report was to include a series of verification procedures that ensured the compromises agreed to were put in place and followed. To take one example, an amnesty program outlined by the proposed bill would not take effect until the Government Accountability Office had verified that the federal government had constructed a useable workplace verification system for employers, and created a path to legalization that included protections against fraudulent applications.

The deficit of trust that helped sink the McCain-Kennedy bill is not just something that plagues immigration legislation. It is a byproduct of the way Congress does business these days, passing massive pieces of legislation that most members haven't completely read and leaving the many details of enforcement and enactment to the federal bureaucracy. That creates a sometimes legitimate suspicion of new legislation and a "gotcha" mentality in Washington where critics pour over bills like the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank looking for mandates, taxes or fees not previously disclosed, or where cabinet members get to offer their interpretation of what Congress meant after a bill passes. Legislation requiring compromises on both sides of the aisle are particularly likely to be seen skeptically outside of Washington because there's something in them for just about everybody to distrust.

Americans are similarly wary of legislation concocted in Washington that require sacrifices of them because of their doubts about lawmakers' real intentions. One objection I hear all the time to a Social Security fix that requires raising our retirement age is that back in 1983 we did just that with legislation which was supposed to have secured the program's fiscal future. When candidate Al Gore argued during his presidential run in 2000 for a so-called Social Security "lock box'' to protect the program's future, it was in response to a widespread sense among voters that somehow Washington would waste away the surplus in Social Security and couldn't be trusted to deliver on its promises to pay benefits to those who had contributed into the system for so many years. Gore's ‘lockbox,' which would never really have existed, was really just another way of trying to convince increasingly skeptical voters that the government would make good.

Most lawmakers in Washington are broadly aware that Congress garners low-ratings in polls because it seems ineffective and paralyzed by partisan squabbling. But if they truly understood this deficit of trust among voters, lawmakers would be doing more on issues like immigration to craft and promote legislation that makes the average voter more comfortable that Washington will make good on the promises imbedded in new bills. That would be as important a part of the debate as the details of a new immigration system itself.

Instead lawmakers retreat into the easy cliche that compromise is difficult, if not impossible, because of extremists who will hold any potential deal hostage to their own ideology. It's not that compromise is impossible. It's merely distrusted by voters.

Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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