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08/29/2016 07:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Trump Could Change The Entire Immigration Debate, But Probably Won't

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Republicans have now, by my count, missed two rather large opportunities to improve their general standing with Latino voters. Donald Trump's speech Wednesday (unless it is further postponed or even cancelled outright, of course) might just become the third big missed opportunity. This is a problem entirely of the Republicans' making, since they are caught in a spiral of trying to prove (to each other) how pure their opposition to immigration truly is. They keep redefining the ugly term they toss around (at each other) to describe apostates on the subject, and now will label anything short of deporting 11 million people as "amnesty." This is the trap Trump found himself in, all last week.

Again, this problem is entirely constructed and contained within the Republican Party. Pretty much anything the Democrats propose or support will automatically be called "amnesty," which doesn't really faze Democrats at this point (when your opponent is digging his own political grave, sometimes you just politely offer to hold his coat while he's working). But Republican politicians are terrified of anyone on the right slapping the A-word on them, and not without cause. "Getting primaried" by a Tea Party stalwart is a very real threat.

The Republican establishment tried mightily to avoid the position they now find themselves in. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, they issued a post-mortem document which suggested that maybe Republicans shouldn't demonize undocumented immigrants quite so much, if they wanted to remain a viable political party on the national level (or "have any prayer of winning the White House for the next generation," perhaps). This sage advice was heard by some in the party, but not by quite enough of them.

What followed the post-mortem was an honest attempt to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform plan that Republicans could actually vote for. The "Gang of Eight" came up with just such a plan, and it passed the Senate with a comfortable margin. This bill was then totally and completely ignored by the Republican House, where the Tea Party had more influence. The turnabout was swift, and very likely destroyed Marco Rubio's chance of winning the Republican nomination this year. Rubio, a Gang of Eight member, had initially tried to claim pretty much all the available credit for the bill the Senate passed. To hear him talk, he singlehandedly came up with the compromise (much to the annoyance of a few other GOP Gang of Eight members, it's worth mentioning). But then he realized it wasn't going to pass the House, so he flip-flopped and refused to support the very bill he was supposed to have been solely responsible for creating. Watching Rubio's shift was enough to give a political observer whiplash.

That was the first chance the Republicans blew. It would have actually doubled the size of the Border Patrol, and it would have had a very long "path to citizenship" -- one that would have taken (at a minimum) 13 long years for anyone to travel. The plan, naturally, was labelled "amnesty" by the purists in the Tea Party. The second big chance the Republicans torpedoed was perhaps the biggest danger to the Democratic position on the issue, because it sounded quite reasonable to the general public. Some crafty Republicans decided on doing a little triangulation of the Latino demographic. What they came up with was a "path to legalization" -- again, a very reasonable-sounding idea to many. Immigrants without documentation would be allowed to (eventually -- the "path" would doubtlessly have been a long one) apply for and receive legal status, which would allow them to legally work and pay taxes. They'd be legal residents, with the functional equivalent of a green card. The catch, though, would be that they would never be allowed to take the final step most green card holders take -- they would have been consigned to never being able to become citizens.

This was actually a brilliant plan, for the Republicans. If they had gotten behind it in a big way and pushed a bill through Congress, then Democrats might now be awfully fearful that Latino support could be up for grabs in future elections. But, of course, Republicans blew this golden opportunity once again, with plenty of cries of "Amnesty!" from the peanut gallery of the Tea Partiers in the House.

The brilliance of this plan might eventually be resurrected, so it is important for Democrats to understand it. There are essentially three things that a legal resident cannot do that a U.S. citizen is allowed to do: hold certain sensitive government jobs, serve on a jury, and vote. Now, the missing out on the joys of jury duty or being a spy for the C.I.A. (or whatever other sensitive job openings fall under this classification) aren't exactly big worries for most people in this situation. What undocumented immigrants instead worry about is being pulled over by a cop for some silly infraction, only to end up being deported. The weight of these fears is almost unimaginable to those who don't experience such feelings on a daily basis. How many undocumented immigrants might accept legal status as "good enough," even if the price is forever forfeiting the chance to actually participate in American democracy? The opportunity to be able to show a police officer a residency card and to be allowed a drivers' license would lift an enormous weight off the shoulders of millions. And they might even be grateful to the Republicans who allowed such a thing to happen. This is the brilliance of the GOP plan, at least as far as Democrats are concerned.

That is, if they could ever get such a thing passed. To be blunt, they can't -- because the purists in the party have (no surprise) already called such a position amnesty. Donald Trump was flirting with supporting this position last week, but now appears to have moved back into the "they've all got to go home" camp once again.

Trump's speech might represent the third blown opportunity, because if he really has gone back to his hardline position it means Republicans might see Latinos voting solidly Democratic for a long time to come. Mitt Romney only managed to get 27 percent of the national Latino vote, but Trump could easily sink a lot lower than that. Future Republican presidential candidates might struggle to even get double digits, in much the same way they currently do with African-Americans.

From where I sit, Trump has one opportunity left. I even hesitate to publicly state it, because it would be such a game-changer for the entire immigration reform debate. There is one glaring fact in the midst of all the posturing on immigration that neither party has ever adequately addressed, and that is the unacceptable backlog of immigrants -- legal immigrants -- who routinely wait decades for their paperwork to be processed. Imagine waiting in a D.M.V. line for twenty years, and you'll begin to comprehend what people who legally apply for immigration regularly face.

For any other government service, a wait time of two decades would be beyond unacceptable. But because these are immigrants (who can't yet vote), there is little political will in Washington to change things any time soon. It would require a massive infusion of resources to even begin to attack this monstrous backlog, and neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to even broach the subject in Congress.

To put it plainly: we would not have a problem with illegal immigration if our legal immigration system were not so broken. Imagine if the backlog were erased, and immigrants with a solid claim knew they would only have to wait something like three years for their paperwork to be processed. It would mean few would attempt to illegally immigrate, since the legal process wouldn't be such an undue burden.

This is why I say it could be a game-changer for Donald Trump. Only Nixon could go to China, and only someone like Trump could ever propose such a radical plan to Republicans with any hope of seeing it become reality. Trump could say in his upcoming speech something like the following:

The backlog for legal immigration is disgraceful. It's disgraceful! It can take someone two decades to enter this country as a legal immigrant, after they file their paperwork. The system is totally broken, folks. As president, I will put tens of billions of dollars into hiring people to process all this paperwork, so that the process for legally immigrating becomes a lot more humane and manageable for everyone. Within the first two years of my administration, the backlog will cease to exist. I want to see anyone with a claim to immigrate to America have their application considered within three years -- and not a day more! When this has been achieved, then I will have no special plan for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America -- they can just get in line with everyone else, knowing that their application will be dealt with in three years. I don't think three years is too long to wait, especially for someone who has been here for 10 or 15 years already. People already here will have to pay any and all back taxes, and they'll have to pay a reasonable penalty for breaking the law for so long. Hey, you broke the law, you pay a big fine, that's the way it goes. But then they'll be just as eligible as anyone else and they'll be able to go through the same process as everyone else, knowing it won't take decades before they get an answer. The real problem is the backlog, folks. Believe me. We're going to get rid of it. Problem solved!

That is what should worry Democrats, although the chances of Trump actually taking this issue on is remote enough for me to propose it to him before he actually gives his speech. Trump could change the conversation overnight on the immigration issue, and focus everyone on how broken the system truly is. He could make his "I'm a businessman" pitch by identifying a problem even Democrats never want to talk about. "I'm an outsider, I will change Washington" would fit right in with taking on the backlog head-on. Oh, sure, some Republicans would howl at spending any money in the budget, but Trump could sell the idea that they would all be "temporary jobs for the emergency," and that after the backlog was cleared, many of the jobs would disappear. A temporary hike in the budget would be a lot easier sell than spending the money every year for eternity, in other words.

Trump would even avoid the amnesty label as well. One of the few positions still accepted by the hardliners (who toss the label around with abandon at their fellow Republicans) is that the 11 million people already here should have to "get in the back of the line" and "receive no special treatment." If the only special treatment Trump is proposing is having them pay all their back taxes and a big fine, that would probably be acceptable to the hardliners. Trump would be seen as fixing the underlying problem, and after it was fixed the problem of the 11 million would essentially solve itself. If applying for legal immigration weren't such a nightmare for so many, there would be no real reason why these people wouldn't be happy (indeed, overjoyed) to "get in the back of the line." Their biggest problem with doing so now is that the back of the line means a 20-year wait or more. Remove that obstacle, and the system might just work fairly well for everyone.

If Donald Trump came up with such a plan, it would unquestionably change the entire conversation surrounding immigration reform. If the legal immigration system worked well, in a timely fashion, then the enticement of illegally immigrating would all but disappear. It'd be a true paradigm shift. The tenor of the debate would shift -- even within the Republican Party -- from throwing endless money at border controls (and walls) and repeated choruses of "Amnesty!" to questions like: "How much is this going to cost?" and "Can it be done on Trump's timetable?" Democrats would be left flat-footed, with the choice of either supporting Trump's plan or having to explain why they couldn't do so. Hillary Clinton would be left with only: "Me too! I'm for that too!" as a viable political position, which would cede the prize for leadership on the issue to Trump himself.

It would indeed be a game-changer. But Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party are quite likely to blow this latest opportunity in the same spectacular fashion as they've blown all other recent opportunities. So I'm really not all that worried that Trump will take my advice.

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