Op-Ed

Democrats can horse trade on immigration reform

U.S. Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson
U.S. Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson AP

In September 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson famously pleaded with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for help to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to save the U.S. economy from the brink of catastrophe caused by the housing crisis. Even though they could have done nothing and asserted that the collapse had occurred on President Bush’s watch, Democrats voted 172 to 63 in favor of the legislation, while Republicans voted 108 to 91 against it.

Now, sometime near the end of the summer, the Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling in order to prevent the government’s credit rating from collapsing and causing what, by many accounts, would be a significant economic downturn that would lead to a surge in unemployment. If past voting patterns are prologue, there are at least 150 Republican members of the House and 30 Republican members of the Senate who will not vote to raise the debt ceiling on a “clean bill” — one with no other provisions attached.

Moreover, any budget cuts that many of those members would demand in order to vote for a debt-ceiling increase would almost certainly lead to no Democrats being able to support such a proposal. Finally, some members of the House and Senate will not vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances.

This means that seven years after the passage of TARP, there may soon be another plea for Democratic leaders to save America’s economy from the brink of collapse because Republicans are unable to pass such legislation on their own. When this happens, Democratic leadership should demand that Congress pass common-sense comprehensive immigration reform as their price of admission for ensuring that an economic collapse does not occur under a Trump administration.

There are many reasons for supporting this course of action. First and foremost, if members of Congress are serious about reducing the national debt, S.744, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill passed by the Senate in 2013, was scored by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office as reducing federal budget deficits by $158 billion over a 10-year period. And, it was projected to grow the economy by 3 percent to 5 percent per year for the next 10 years.

Second, a bipartisan consensus solution on immigration reform is completely realistic. Although there is much disagreement on the fringes of this debate, with some on the far left resisting any immigration enforcement while some on the far right believe that all immigration disserves the national interest, the people required to reach a bipartisan consensus to raise the debt ceiling and pass immigration reform are not that far apart on the subject.

In fact, anyone looking at the immigration section of most members of Congress’ websites will see some version of a page saying that they support securing the border, improving worksite enforcement, encouraging legal immigration and giving people currently here illegally the ability to earn legal status.

Twice before, the Senate has reached a bipartisan consensus on immigration reform only to see inaction in the House. But this proves a consensus, indeed, is possible.

Third, the existing uncertainty around immigration calls out for some meaningful closure.

If no legislation is enacted, we will likely be spending the next four years watching news programs airing YouTube videos of immigration enforcement actions separating parents from children that are distributed to engender public sympathy and to highlight the human consequences of a broken system.

And as confusion spreads over travel bans and visa restrictions, key sectors of our economy will inevitably face significant economic disruption from foreign nationals declining to travel here on vacation, attend our universities, or open the next Google or Intel in the United States.

Finally, there simply is no other hope for immigration reform. Piecemeal enforcement bills will not pass in the Senate.

And bills containing some relief for the undocumented will likely never receive a vote otherwise.

It is only by tying immigration reform to this must pass legislation that those who seek to fix our broken immigration system will have any chance of succeeding.

So, when the time inevitably comes for Republicans to ask Democratic leaders for their help to pass the debt ceiling, the Democrats should hand them a copy of S.744 (or something like it) and say that they will vote to approve the debt ceiling increase after that immigration bill has been enacted into law. Sometimes, it is the medicine none of us wants to take that winds up making us healthier in the end.

Leon Fresco is a former deputy assistant attorney general in charge of immigration at U.S. Department of Justice. He now leads Holland & Knight’s global immigration practice in Washington, D.C.

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