Originally Published in CNN
Ronald Brownstein - February 23, 2021
With Republicans, under the shadow of former President Donald Trump
, still mostly opposing all forms of immigration, and many Democrats narrowing their focus toward legalizing as many undocumented immigrants as possible, revisions to the nation's system of legal
immigration may lack a plausible pathway to congressional passage, many participants in the legislative discussions say.
Yet immigration experts and economists across the ideological spectrum agree that increasing the future flow of legal immigrants will be essential to driving economic growth and maintaining a sustainable balance between the number of working-age people paying taxes and retired Americans drawing benefits through Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements for the elderly. That pressure is especially acute because the latest census data suggest
the nation's population may have grown more slowly from 2010 to 2020 than over any other 10-year span in American history -- an ominous dynamic that's received little attention from either party.
"Without immigration it becomes increasingly impossible to sustain entitlements, much less a functioning health care system, or a local tax base in rural and suburban cities and communities across the country," says Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, a centrist immigration advocacy group.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right American Action Forum, echoes his warning. Given the slowdown in the growth of the working-age population, he says, "in the absence of immigration the US becomes Japan
: We become smaller in size, older, less economically potent and less capable of projecting our values on our global stage."
After Trump sought to slash legal immigration through legislative and administrative action, the legislative proposals introduced last week
by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats would boost the number of new arrivals to a much greater extent than initial reactions to the bills recognized, according to a new analysis
shared exclusively with CNN by Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a public policy group that studies immigration.
"The bill would end up significantly increasing the legal immigration level and that should have a significant benefit demographically," Anderson told me.
But those proposals could quickly fall out of the immigration debate if Democrats conclude that they have no chance of winning enough Republican support to pass a comprehensive bill -- and instead narrow their efforts to legalizing big chunks of the undocumented population, such as young undocumented people brought to the US by their parents
, through the budget "reconciliation" process, which requires only a majority vote in the Senate.
"Legal immigration is really the orphan child in all of this," says David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
That's likely to change only if enough Senate Republicans are willing to support comprehensive legislation that addresses both the undocumented and legal immigration. And that remains a long shot, as the GOP's electoral coalition in the Trump era has grown even more dependent on the voters most uneasy about immigration
in particular and the nation's growing racial and religious diversity in general.
Earlier comprehensive efforts fizzled
All of this year's legislative calculations about immigration, as I wrote recently
, are shaped by the failures of 2006 and 2013. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to pass comprehensive immigration bills that balanced legalization for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants -- a Democratic priority -- with tougher border enforcement -- the top Republican goal -- and changes in the legal immigration system -- mostly a concern of the business community and a source of ambivalence, if not hostility, from organized labor.
Both in 2006 and 2013, the Senate passed omnibus bills with bipartisan majorities (though with support from notably fewer Republicans the second time.) But each time the legislation died when the Republicans who controlled the House majority at the time refused to consider the bills.
That legacy of failure largely explains why there's little enthusiasm among Democrats today for the extended bipartisan negotiations that characterized the 2006 and 2013 efforts.
Immigrant advocacy groups aren't resisting efforts by Biden and Senate Democrats to seek possible areas of consensus with Republicans, but almost universally they consider them doomed to fail. At most, some advocates think it's possible that 10 Senate Republicans -- the number needed to break a GOP filibuster if every Democrat holds together -- might support a pathway to citizenship for the young undocumented people brought to the US by their parents or conceivably even longtime agriculture workers. But very few believe that 10 GOP senators will support legal status for any significant remainder of the undocumented, whatever concessions Democrats offer on other issues, like tougher border security.
That's a key difference from the earlier negotiations, when Democrats operated on the assumption that if they provided sufficient reassurances on security, enough Republicans would embrace legalization.