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Why Has Washington Failed To Reform Our Immigration System?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are an estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. That's up from one and a half million in 1980. Through the decades, there's been wide consensus that illegal immigration is a problem that the government needs to solve.

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GEORGE W BUSH: The laws governing the immigration system aren't working.

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BARACK OBAMA: Our immigration system is broken.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a dysfunctional immigration system.

SIEGEL: So if everyone running the country agrees it's a problem, why hasn't anyone fixed it? I asked political scientist Norman Ornstein, who has written extensively on the decline of the legislative process, whether immigration is just one of many big issues Washington can solve, or whether it's a special one.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It's both. There is something special about immigration. And if you look at the solutions that we've had in the past, going back to what was a great bipartisan legislative triumph, Simpson-Mazzoli, as it was called, Republican Senator Alan Simpson Democratic Representative Roman (ph) Mazzoli passed a bill...

SIEGEL: This is back in 1986.

ORNSTEIN: Back in 1986. Never again. We're going to stop this flow of immigrants. But in the meantime, we're going to deal with those who are here humanely, and we're going to put some boundaries in place. And that bill was enacted, and it didn't have a great impact. And the larger part of the problem here is we have an enormous country. And we not only have a 3,000 mile plus porous border, but a very large share of the ones who are here and undocumented didn't come in over the border in the normal fashion. They came in on a tourist visa or another kind of visa, and they simply stayed.

SIEGEL: Overstayed their visa. So I think I've got this right that in the 21st century, prior to this most recent election, we had every permutation you could have of a Democratic president and Democratic majority Congress, Democratic president, Republican majority Congress, and Republican president with Democrats and Republican with Republicans. Why has it been so baffling for Washington, at least during the Bush and Obama administrations, to come up with some kind of compromise law that would address this very large population?

ORNSTEIN: So let's look at one part of the larger picture. We're in a tribal political environment, and the party that doesn't occupy the presidency is very reluctant to give the president a big victory. But we have some other factors here, too. This is complicated to do. It's complicated because among other things, if you provide a path to citizenship, you are in effect rewarding people who came here illegally while there's a long list of people who've been waiting in line through the normal legal process.

Then throw in what happens when there's a stagnant economy, which is the rise of populism. Populism brings with it nativism. Nativism means that you're going to have a sizable political force that will go ballistic if you do anything to encourage immigration. And it's a toxic mess that makes it very hard even when there's a bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive solution.

SIEGEL: I remember 25 years ago when one senator wanted welfare reform - Daniel Patrick Moynihan - and he managed to drive an issue when lots of other people didn't care about it.

ORNSTEIN: Bill Bradley did that with...

SIEGEL: Tax reform.

ORNSTEIN: ...With tax reform.

SIEGEL: Are there any people today in Washington who just care enough about this issue to try to push us toward some kind of solution?

ORNSTEIN: The perspective of the National Republican Party after the devastating defeat in 2012 was we've got to do immigration reform and expand our attractiveness to a larger population. The charismatic Cuban-American Marco Rubio stepped in to be the savior for the Republican Party. And by all accounts, Rubio was an extraordinarily important figure building bridges and finding that option and then had the success of moving it through the Senate. And then the politics changed, and he denounced his own bill and urged the House of Representatives to kill it because, all of a sudden, if you're going to run for president in a Republican Party dominated by an activist group that was highly nativist, you couldn't take that position.

Now, we did have President Trump tell a group of reporters before his address to Congress that he was open to any kind of a compromise, including a path to legalization. And that got at least a few hearts beating a little bit more quickly. But frankly, there's nothing except one very brief mention in the record or in the proposals that the president has made that would suggest that that's even a remote possibility.

SIEGEL: Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, thank you very much for talking with us.

ORNSTEIN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG, "SKIPPING ROCKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.