These days, the precocious teenage political junkie who lives across the street from me understands that the notorious intransigence and truculence of House Republicans can be explained in great part by their ingeniously gerry-mandered, extremely homogeneous congressional districts. Yet in the past couple of weeks, it has been Democrats who have dug in their heels, as Republican stalwarts have begun to budge on one of the most contentious issues currently facing America: immigration reform. Prodded by their leadership, House Republicans are contemplating what only a few months ago they vigorously rejected: legal status for individuals who arrived here illegally when they were children.
So far, contemplating is all they are doing. On July 23 a hearing was held by the House subcommittee on immigration and border security to discuss the “Kids Act,” touted by majority leader Eric Cantor and Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte as a way to address the concerns of young people who are here illegally through no fault of their own. Yet as several of the Democratic and Republican members who spoke at the hearing emphasized, there is as yet no legislation to discuss. So it is not at all clear whether Cantor and Goodlatte are talking merely about legal status for undocumented minors or an actual path to citizenship.
Still, for a party whose presidential candidate was arguing last year that illegal immigrants should “self-deport” and whose congressional leaders in 2010 resoundingly rejected legislation providing a path to citizenship for illegal youth (the DREAM Act), the Kids Act, even as a gleam in Eric Cantor’s eye, represents a sea change in Republican thinking about illegal immigration. Anyone who doubts that should listen to subcommittee chairman Trey Gowdy’s striking opening statement at the hearing, delineating how the rule of law applies differently to adults and to children.
Yet the Democratic response to this sea change has been swift—and negative. To be sure, some Democratic members have acknowledged their Republican colleagues’ movement. But they have also rejected it as inadequate. As House Democratic caucus chairman Xavier Becerra declared, “There is no reason why Democrats should be part of this political game that Republicans are playing.” Suddenly, it’s the Democrats who are rigid and unyielding.
Intransigent Democrats are of course no novelty. After all, they too get elected from gerrymandered, homogeneous congressional districts. And even more than Republicans, they are in thrall to well-organized interest groups that tend to enforce ideological rigidity. It’s also true that congressional Republicans have come to the party late, so they should expect to endure the predictable posturing and bargaining behavior from Democrats.
Yet there’s another aspect of Democratic intransigence that reflects widely overlooked peculiarities of immigration politics. For example, it is difficult for the advocacy groups that have been supporting the push for “comprehensive immigration reform” to compromise and agree on a fallback position. This dynamic has been insightfully and honestly explored by Georgetown law professor Philip G. Schrag in his neglected insider’s account of advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees during the 1990s. As Schrag explains in A Well-Founded Fear: The Congressional Battle to Save Political Asylum in America, immigrant advocates invariably come together in coalitions whose dominant ethos is, not surprisingly, “consensus politics and transparent decision-making.” Yet these principles are extremely difficult for large, cumbersome coalitions to sustain. Particularly in a policy area as complicated as immigration, intense negotiations typically boil down to a few key players making tough decisions in private.
There’s more. Schrag also highlights that compromise is difficult for immigrant advocates because they feel a “sense of stewardship for the interests or constituents they represent, most of whom did not choose their representatives, even in the fictitious sense that stockholders choose their boards of directors.” Immigrant advocates are consequently left “wondering if they have sold out the interests they claimed to represent.” Schrag goes even further and observes that such “advocates perpetually doubt their right to take less than an absolutist position, even when it is clear that advocating an absolutist position will result in worse legislation than seeking a compromise.”