A year from now, one might read a paragraph like this in a journalistic account of the current battle over the border wall:
“President Donald Trump hunkered down on Twitter, demanding $5 billion for a border wall, as Democrats assumed control of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, conservative activists began applying pressure that would ultimately lead Trump to accept a wide range of immigration reforms.”
It’s true. The most interesting news about immigration this week did not emanate from the president’s Twitter account. Nor did it involve the push-pull between House Democrats and Trump.
No, it came from Wichita, Kan., home of Koch Industries and conservative Svengali Charles Koch. Koch’s powerful donor network will turn its formidable attention toward immigration reform.
TIME first reported this, based on an email outlining Koch’s intentions. But it wasn’t earth-shattering news to those who follow the immigration issue closely. The libertarian Koch has long supported free trade and fewer barriers to immigration.
Yet the story signaled a pretty bracing commitment. Reportedly, a primary goal will be to gain a permanent legal status for the “Dreamers.” They are the undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children, a decision they obviously had no role in making.
Legislation to legalize Dreamer’s status has existed for nearly 20 years. The lack of action, despite the organized and dramatic advocacy of the Dreamers, suggests that proponents need to shift gears, to form new alliances.
Can libertarian conservatives provide the political heft that Democrats and immigrant advocates need to enact reform?
Koch and his 15-year-old network have won a seat at the table — many would say they bought it — whether their harshest critics like it or not.
And there is a precedent for such cooperation. Koch network helped secure recently passed criminal justice reforms, forming alliances with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The Koch Seminar Network, a group of hundreds of millionaire donors, promoted the reforms in conservative circles, arguing that it is senseless not to reduce the costs of incarcerating higher numbers of people at a time when violent-crime rates are dropping. Koch donors used their money to hold politicians accountable,.
The First Step Act passed Congress in December and affects the federal prison system, shortening some sentences and funding efforts to reduce recidivism. Trump signed it into law, despite his posturing as harsh on crime.
Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, the political funding of its Freedom Partners, and the LIBRE Initiative, which is aimed at Latinos, will likely ramp up similar pragmatic arguments for immigration reform.
A good indication of the seriousness of the plan is the way nationalist right-wingers reacted. Breitbart crowed that the called-for reforms amounted to “amnesty” and warned of “mass immigration,” while also noting that Koch’s unwillingness to back Trump in 2020.
Other critics have noted, with likely accuracy, that Koch’s support for immigration reform comes with an expected return on the bottom line.
It’s no secret, though, that the stalemate over immigration is distressing to a lot of businesses, from restaurants to farmers and food processors. They want clarity and policies that supply the labor they need.
And there are more general demographic realities at play. The nation is aging. We need the higher birthrates of immigrants; we need their entrepreneurial talent and labor and spending to sustain economic growth. Our borders can be secured by streamlining processes that allow people to arrive legally. Decades-long waits are unsustainable.
Republicans have made hay with their deportation theater, with their demonization of undocumented immigrants as criminals. This misses the big picture despite the payoff at the polls. Stifling immigration is not good for the country. It’s the opposite.
Many conservatives remain unmoved by humanitarian arguments for immigration reform. So let their fellow conservatives make the pitch from a different angle. If pecuniary interests lead them to support what is right and just, the end result can be the same.
Happy New Year! Let’s see if the Koch network can get the president to change his tune and help push through comprehensive immigration reforms that have bedeviled others for far too long.