Longest Shutdown in History: All for Nothing?

When I was settling upon my article topic on a late Thursday night, the most protracted partial government shutdown in US history appeared nowhere near resolution. Besides racking up at least $6 billion in cost to the economy, the 35-day showdown between President Trump and the Democrat-controlled House had resulted in sleepless nights across single-parent households worried about making rent payment, young professionals facing a new stumbling block to building their credit score, and chronically ill patients thinking twice about refilling a prescription. Luckily, the uncertainty for over 800,000 federal workers and their families came to an end on January 25, after Trump agreed to sign a stopgap bill to reopen the government and allow negotiations to continue. Yet, even as the lives of affected Americans start to fall back to normal, the future of DREAMers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, H1B visa holders, and aspiring immigrants remains just as unpredictable.

If there was one silver lining in the whole shutdown debacle, it is that millions of Americans awoke to the following somber realization: our immigration system is convoluted, inefficient, and dangerously unprepared for the 21st century. Politicians across the aisle are all too happy to engage in pious grandstanding and name calling on immigration-related matters. In reality, however, Democrats and Republicans share copyright ownership for the current mess.

Over the years, Republicans have railed against America’s family-based immigration model and called for a more meritocratic approach. But actions speak louder than words: every time push comes to shove, the GOP shows itself unable or unwilling to tame the recalcitrant House Freedom Caucus. When the ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration bill––a bipartisan piece of legislation that would abolish the nonsensical visa lottery, put undocumented workers on a path to citizenship, and usher in a merit-based immigration system––passed the Senate in 2013, the Freedom Caucus refused to even consider it because they would not stand for a vote on so-called “amnesty.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have repeatedly made clear that they would much rather stick to the status quo. The current system, which generally does not account for professional qualifications in selecting immigrants and makes one eligible for social security benefits the day a Green Card arrives in the mail, serves as a reliable source of Democratic support by bringing fresh voters to the New Deal Coalition.

Then there is a burgeoning notion in the most liberal of circles that immigrating to the United States is a right, not a privilege. Lady Liberty should welcome anyone and everyone, the argument goes, even if doing so clashes with security and economic interests of American citizens. No wonder the majority of Democrats have been oblivious to the idea of transitioning to a points system that would prioritize individuals with English skills, higher education, and employment prospects––the idea championed at different times by senators as ideologically diverse as Tom Cotton, Jeff Flake, and Chuck Schumer.

Trump did not get funding for the border wall. Democrats failed to secure protections for DACA recipients. Was the shutdown all for nothing? It does not have to be. Now that everyone has been reminded of the scope of chaos even a partial shutdown is capable of wreaking, it is time to put our partisanship aside and come together. Republicans should work to remedy the metastasis of populism and nativism across the highest echelons of their party. Democrats, who are increasingly adamant about adopting Canadian-style single-payer healthcare, German-inspired free tuition at public colleges, and New Zealand’s maternity leave standards, would benefit from learning a lesson or two from those countries’ merit-based immigration systems.

When President Reagan was asked why he agreed to a 5 percent tax cut when he had originally proposed cutting taxes by twice as much, he responded: “Half a loaf is better than none.” February 15, the new deadline to strike a deal, offers nowhere enough time to overhaul our 60-year-old immigration system through a comprehensive reform package. However, there is room for small progress. Perhaps we could extend DACA for a few years, replace the Green Card lottery with a scheme that prioritizes immigrants already in the US, and expedite the issuance of H1B visas and employment-based permanent resident permits, all while exploring more profound changes that would bring our immigration system in line with the 21st century standards. Trump is no Ronald Reagan. Pelosi is no Tip O’Neill. But the “half-a-loaf” strategy remains the best and only way.