On the immigration front, the emerging dilemma for progressives is whether to support an imperfect bill or hold out for a better one. This question will obviously turn on the final details (Hilzoy has an excellent outline of the big picture issues), but my view is that progressives should err on the side of passing legislation, even if it means swallowing some bad provisions (note that this is a working presumption rather than an unyielding position).
First, I think people need to understand (1) how unique (and fleeting) the current political coalition is; and (2) why this uniqueness matters. One of the main arguments for waiting is that the 2008 election will create a more favorable environment for immigration reform if the Democrats win (both the White House and Congress). I think, though, that this view is fundamentally mistaken. In reality, immigration reform will be far more difficult (if not impossible) in a government controlled entirely by Democrats.
Immigration has soured me on Mickey Kaus, but he’s right about one thing – immigration reform is an electoral loser for the Democrats (at least in the short term). I’m not sure what the national polls say, but I don’t think they’re all that relevant. What is relevant is that immigration is a big loser in the marginal districts (and states) that will decide which party controls Congress. Without strong Republican “cover,” a large, veto-holding chunk of Democratic legislators (particularly the freshmen) would oppose comprehensive reform. In short, Democrats cannot (in the short term) hold political power if they are perceived as owning immigration reform.
At the same time, and for more obvious reasons, it’s risky for Republicans to support comprehensive reform as well. It’s true that the business community generally gets what it wants. But that maxim only holds true to the extent it doesn’t cause “political death” in primary elections. The conservative base is passionately, even hysterically, anti-reform. For that reason, it’s the type of issue of which primary challenges are made.
That’s why the White House’s strong support for comprehensive support is so important. On the one hand, it gives enormous political cover to the Democrats. Notice, for instance, how much of the conservative base’s relative wrath is being channeled toward the White House rather than Dems. In addition, White House support gives cover to nervous Republicans and frees them to do either what they think is right, or what their corporate patrons want them to do. Substitute Hillary Clinton for Bush, and you’d see a lot more GOP opposition.
The White House then is really the glue holding this compromise together. And the White House support is itself unique (and fleeting). It’s not just that it’s a Republican administration, it’s that this particular administration — for somewhat contingent reasons (roots in Texas; Rove’s demographic faith; etc.) — has made progressive immigration reform a top priority that it will spend capital on. None of the major Republican candidates in 2008 should be expected to do the same if they win. People like Romney are already running against “amnesty,” while McCain’s precarious relationship with the base would limit his freedom of movement.
Bottom line — the stars are truly aligned. The current Republican administration supports immigration reform, and this support provides the political cover necessary for both Congressional Democrats and Republicans to strike a deal. When Bush leaves (or perhaps ascends), immigration reform leaves with him.
But the “star alignment” is only one part of the argument. If the stars align for legislation that is substantively crappy, it doesn’t really matter. So we also need to look at the merits of the bill and do the cost-benefit analysis. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the bill remains largely as is — i.e., with a guest worker proposal; limits on “chain” immigration; fines; Z visa for 12 million illegal immigrants; etc. Many parts of this are undesirable to say the least, but I think they’re worth the larger prize — a route to citizenship for 12 million people currently living in the shadows.
But there’s an even stronger argument — namely, it will be far easier to fix the undesirable provisions piecemeal if the larger reform has already been passed. This argument relies in part on Eugene Volokh’s Harvard Law Review article “The Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope” (pdf). To be brief, Volokh’s article defends the logic of “slippery slope” arguments and explains why they have merit under certain circumstances.
One such circumstance in which “slippery slope” arguments work is when an action lowers the costs of future actions. For instance, people might argue that gun registries are a “slippery slope” to gun confiscation. In one sense, this argument is correct in that the start-up costs of establishing and maintaining a gun registry making identifying gun owners much easier and less expensive. Same deal with the NSA spying program. It’s a slippery slope to government abuse because the establishment of the initial program makes abuse of confidential information exponentially easier.
To analogize (roughly) to the immigration reform context, establishing the initial Z visa program is a slippery slope to far more liberal immigration reform. That’s because establishing the initial program is the biggest, most politically-difficult, and most expensive hurdle. But once it’s in place, it will be far less expensive to “fix” it later. For instance, provisions lowering registration fees or liberalizing family ties are far easier to pass on a partisan basis than massive comprehensive immigration reform. (Bush is already quietly liberalizing some of these provisions in fact). Liberal improvements can be more easily tucked in to future legislation and/or paired with stacking some concrete in the Arizona desert somewhere.
Also, once the comprehensive reform is in place, it won’t be repealed. The political fallout would be too great. In addition, while it takes 60 Senate votes to pass reform, it takes only 40 to maintain it. This is the same logic of the AARP’s (wise) support of the GOP’s flawed prescription drug bill. Once passed, the AARP knew it would never be repealed. And, in their view, it would be easier to tweak once passed.
All that said, there is a limit to this logic. If the final details are too unpalatable, progressives shouldn’t support it. But the point is that we should work under the strong presumption that passing flawed legislation is better than waiting for a dream that will never materialize.