There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that President Donald Trump actually wants to increase legal immigration to “the largest numbers ever,” as he claimed this week. Yes, he backed up that (apparently ad-libbed) remark the day after his State of the Union address, but not even Trump’s own aides take his comments seriously. Is there any reason anyone else should?
In this case, yes: Democrats should take Trump up on his offer – and make it a centerpiece of their 2019 congressional agenda. More immigration would do enormous good for the U.S. economy, the U.S.’s long-term fiscal deficit, the U.S.’s looming retirement crisis and – not incidentally – the lives of the immigrants themselves.
But forget the policy for moment. What about the politics? There is still a strong case for a Democratic overture, even if it goes nowhere. Pressing the president on his proposal would expose Trump’s vulnerabilities with both suburban swing voters and his base.
For suburban swing voters, Trump’s refusal to accept an increase in legal immigration, especially when coupled with robust border security, would highlight his backwards-looking vision of America. Such voters may be uncomfortable with the more radical proposals of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but they are even more turned off by the white nationalists on the far right. If Democrats can make the case that Trump is doing the bidding of this nationalist element, then they may find it easier to attract and retain suburban voters.
For members of Trump’s base, meanwhile, his inability to win any victory on immigration is an ongoing sore spot. The more immigration remains a topic of public debate, without any clear resolution, the more frustrated they will become. The president’s humiliating defeat during the government shutdown was one of the few times his base support withered. Failing to reach an agreement on immigration yet again would add insult to injury.
What’s more, as with the shutdown, Trump’s public endorsement of more legal immigration will make it hard for him to blame any failure on the Democrats. He said he wanted this, and they tried to give it to him.
Given all this – and taking into account Trump’s fickle nature – there’s reason to believe he might actually sign a bill that allowed increased legal immigration. This is a president, after all, who can change positions on everything from gun control to foreign policy. What seems to matter most to him is not the policy but whether he can claim victory.
So it’s worth it for Democrats to test which way the president will lurch. There’s little chance that any other parts of their agenda will become law before 2020, and even then the chances are slim that they will flip the Senate. It could easily be another four to six years before the Democrats are able to secure unified government.
Even a Trump loss in 2020 could complicate their agenda. For one, there is no telling what will happen to the Republican Party in that case; the sting of a one-term president could easily lead the party toward moderation – or toward a more complete embrace of populism. Either turn would complicate politics by pulling some faction of the Democrats’ very broad coalition toward the Republican Party, making the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform murkier.
That would be unfortunate. Expanding immigration would lift the long-term rate of economic growth, which is expected to slow in the coming years as Baby Boomers retire. Slower economic growth means that entitlement spending will eat up more of the federal budget, just as pension payments put a greater strain on state and local governments. And depressed growth makes asset prices more prone to boom-and-bust cycles, and the economy more vulnerable recessions.
Democrats needn’t worry about whether Trump’s offer is serious – it’s worth engaging the issue regardless. Doing immigration reform now, in fact, may be their best chance for a rare enduring legislative accomplishment in this era of hyper-partisanship and narrow legislative majorities.