Back to Basics in Immigration Reform

Less is more, Mies van der Rohe famously pronounced, trumpeting his allegiance to an austere minimalist aesthetic that, never quite caught on. Minimalism is back again, this time in legislative guise, among the immigration advocates who have been forced to make a virtue of necessity, having watched the slow collapse of comprehensive immigration reform, and now seeking to cobble together a simpler, pared-down version from the materials left at hand – the AgJobs bill and the DREAM Act.

In the view of Washington Post columnist Michael Lind, among others, this may be a good thing. The title of Lind’s article says it all: Comprehensive Reform is Overrated. For real change, Washington must think small.  (See Washington Post, 11.Jul.2010.) According to Lind, our immigration problems are so monumentally complex that sweeping legislative solutions are inappropriate; put another way, instead of biting off more than any Congress can reasonably be expected to chew, why not segment the problem into smaller tasks that are capable of being solved individually?

Congress has been immobilized by the sheer size and complexity of immigration problems, Lind argues, and attempts to resolve it on such a massive scale are prone to failure, he says, for three reasons. First, Lind argues, “large-scale reforms give excessive leverage to politicians and groups representing narrow interests.” For example, Lind says, during the bruising fight over comprehensive health care reform, the legislation was held hostage by “holdouts” such as Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who “enjoyed disproportionate bargaining power precisely because so much was at stake.”

The second problem with comprehensive solutions, according to Lind, is that it presupposes that Washington policymakers will never have sufficient foresight to anticipate future problems and “fix them in advance.” As Lind points out, “The longer the time horizon, the greater the hubris of those who claim to be solving problems not just for today but for generations to come.” For Lind, all long-term solutions are fraught with the difficulty of accurately predicting future circumstances. Fair enough.

The third and final obstacle to comprehensive reforms – whether to the immigration system or other government functions – is “our tendency to define every issue as a problem with a potential and distinct solution,” Lind says, arguing that some problems simply can’t be resolved neatly, that “there are some things … that we just have to live with.” Lind calls for a humble incrementalism, a piecemeal approach that might just be the answer to the failure of the grand, theory-of-everything solution to our immigration problems.

What small reforms might be achievable in the near term? According to Lind’s Washington Post commentary, “Although stronger enforcement at the border and in the workplace is probably a political necessity before any new attempts at legalizing the status of illegal immigrants can move forward, there are some other pieces to bite off short of a single, all-encompassing reform push. The backlog of green cards for legal immigrants can be cut by issuing cards more rapidly, for example, so that legalizing the status of illegal immigrants later will not seem unfair.”

Other commentators have suggested that passing the DREAM Act, to provide a path to legal immigration status for children who were brought here before the age of 16. (See Conor Friedersdorf, The U.S. Needs Incomprehensive Immigration Reform,, 08.Jul.2010.)

Some immigration reform may be better than none, but it’s hard not to wonder whether a patchwork solution would be preferable to a carefully-designed systemic solution that has some basic, unifying logic. For the time being, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is the minimalist approach.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.