President Trump has transformed Washington's bipartisan monologue about immigration policy into a real debate. For someone so often dinged for a lack of accomplishments over the past seven months, that's no small feat.
As late as 2013, when senators from both parties discussed "immigration reform," they meant two things: legalizing most illegal immigrants already in the United States and increasing legal immigration substantially. (Conventional wisdom aside, the latter is arguably less popular than the former.)
Republicans — including top Trump defender Sean Hannity and Trump himself — attributed Mitt Romney's loss in the previous presidential election to his failure to adopt these positions. To ever be competitive again, virtually everyone agreed the GOP must become the party of more immigration.
Now instead of amnesty, what Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called "the Trump era" is defined by enforcement. Illegal border crossings are down, not up. Instead of increasing immigration levels, we have a president and two ascendant Republican senators talking about cutting them. Instead of seemingly infinite chain migration via expansive family reunification, we are contemplating more skills-based immigration.
But Trump is not necessarily conducting the debate on the terms that will be most fruitful. Almost 20 years ago, Barbara Jordan was the face of immigration reform: a black Democratic congresswoman from Texas who was active in the civil-rights movement, picked to chair then-President Bill Clinton's commission examining the issue before her untimely death in 1996.
Jordan also wanted to see more immigration enforcement, more emphasis on skills in new admissions and a more manageable number of immigrants each year. Although a defender of birthright citizenship, she sounded like Trump adviser Stephen Miller in asserting "it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest."
Under Trump, the face of immigration enforcement may be recently pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The conviction the president had to erase involved violating the civil rights of Latinos. Arpaio stands accused of racial profiling.
Going from being represented by a civil-rights advocate to a civil-rights violator is a sharp turn in the wrong direction for any cause. But the distinction is especially important when it comes to a fraught issue like immigration.
The economic impact of immigration is hotly contested, though both a 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences and a more recent one by OECD found our current policies producing small net benefits offset by nontrivial net fiscal costs.
Many of the benefits of mass unskilled immigration go to Americans who are already well off, while the costs are disproportionately borne by those who are less so, having a disparate impact on blacks and Latinos, as well as some recent immigrants themselves.
Consider this line from the September 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine often hailed in the media as vindicating defenders of the immigration status quo: "To the extent that negative impacts occur, they are most likely to be found for prior immigrants or native-born workers who have not completed high school — who are often the closest substitutes for immigrant workers with low skills."
The theory by which increasing the low-wage labor supply through immigration doesn't hurt American workers at the lower end of the income scale is that these workers will respond to the influx by relocating to other, higher-paying fields. But what if this isn't really happening in our economy right now or is taking much longer than the models predict?
If unskilled immigration puts pressure on the wages of those who can least afford it, unassimilated immigration frays the bonds of social trust. This can fuel ethnic and racial resentment, empowering the white nationalists of Charlottesville and creating new divisions between black and Hispanic workers.
Trump has made many of the above humane arguments for immigration moderation. But his words and deeds have frequently disinclined people from giving him the benefit of the doubt on race. This is especially problematic when it comes to immigration, given the history of genuine racists calling for restrictions.
This history, retold as a simple morality tale with reactionaries on one side and inspiring Emma Lazarus poems on the other, is often as oversimplified as anti-immigrant scapegoating. The U.S. has experienced both periods of high and low immigration; advocates of lower levels have had varied motivations; the last immigration lull coincided with the integration of the great immigrant wave and major advances in civil rights for people of color.
There is a case to be made that at present, admitting immigrants in lower numbers but with higher skills would benefit many black and Latino American workers. That case can be made by an immigration-reform movement that looks like Barbara Jordan. It can't credibly be made by one that resembles Joe Arpaio.