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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Can Biden seal a deal on immigration?

Asylum seekers waiting in Mexico stand in line

Asylum seekers waiting in Mexico stand in line at the border to receive news of policy changes on Feb. 19, 2021, in Tijuana, Mexico. President Biden this week announced a sweeping immigration reform bill that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for millions living in limbo. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

We’re back to semi-normalcy — debating immigration policy in Washington.

Where were we again? At a stalemate — right?

Democrats want a path to citizenship for millions here unlawfully; Republicans want a wall before any reforms are made. Both benefit from the issue electorally, so there’s little incentive to strike a deal.

Does that about sum it up?

President Joe Biden reignited the debate this week by announcing a sweeping immigration reform bill that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for millions living in limbo. He’s brave to do so. President George W. Bush tried something similar 14 years ago and got his head handed to him by members of his own party.

But something big happened between the two efforts. A president with the most conservative immigration stance on record got elected, yet here we still are.

Donald Trump promised in 2016 that he would deport as president every immigrant here unlawfully, approximately 12 million people in all, to their country of origin. What about illegal don’t you understand?, he asked the nation at the time, and the clarity of his question rang true to many.

But almost from the start it became clear that Trump couldn’t follow through on his pledge. Political uproar aside, the logistics of trying to deport nearly 4% of the U.S. population would be prohibitive, even more challenging than getting Mexico to pay for a wall. So Trump mostly settled on arguing about wall funding for four years, and most of his supporters accepted his effort as sufficient.

Trump’s failure may have changed the rhetoric, if not the equation, in this long national debate, giving hope that maybe, just maybe, something can get done this time. If even Trump couldn’t enforce our trampled immigration laws, so much so that he didn’t even try, can anyone? And if the walling he built proved inordinately expensive and ultimately semi-permeable — immigrants went both over and under much of it — is a 1,900-mile physical barricade really the answer? (Somewhere between 25% and 40% of people here unlawfully arrived by airplane, according to Politifact, so walls could never be a complete solution anyway.)

At the same time, a system piloted in 1996 and now required in all federal hires called E-verify has been successfully taking hold in a handful of states. Its database lets employers check the immigration status of every potential hire to ensure that only people living here legally are brought on. Six states now require E-verify’s use, and any U.S. company can use it on a voluntary basis. As of 2016, more than 600,000 employers had, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

These two realities — that the United States can’t deport 12 million souls and that an employer-based confirmation system is actually working — should have bearing on this year’s debate.

If, say, E-verify were to become a strict national requirement for hiring, legitimate Republican concerns about a path to citizenship incentivizing more unlawful immigration could be addressed. And with that assurance, Democrats may be able to get what they've long wanted, a normalization process for those already here.

Such a deal would not come easily. Civil libertarians from both the right and left despise E-verify, fearing it would place too much onus on employers and ultimately lead to a national ID card. That’s a debate worth having.

It’s refreshing to be discussing actual issues again, isn’t it?

William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.