The number of migrants arriving at the U.S. Southern border has been increasing since President Biden took office. According to one DHS official, "We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years." Border agents have been turning away most adults and families based on a Trump-era public health rule. But unaccompanied minors are being admitted, and the Biden Administration is ramping up efforts to accommodate them.

The border situation represents three different crises. First is the crisis of violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico, which is pushing people to flee those countries.

Second, is the border "crisis" itself. I put crisis in quotes, since the influx of migrants is very manageable. Last month, for example, about 9,500 unaccompanied minors arrived at the border. Our country has the resources to humanely process this many young people. Indeed, when compared with historic trends, the overall number of arrivals during the last decade is significantly lower than what we've seen in the 1980s and 1990s. And so if there is a crisis at the Southern border, it is more about our willingness to deal with the influx, rather than our capacity.

The third crisis--and the one I want to discuss here--is the political crisis. New polling from Populace illustrates the crux of the problem: There is a sharp partisan divide on the issue of immigration. Trump voters rank "severely restricting immigration" as the #3 most important issue facing America. In contrast, Biden voters rank this as the #46 most important issue (out of 55 issues surveyed). For the question of whether America "is open to immigration," Trump voters rank this as # 52 and Biden voters rank it as # 27. In short, Trump voters have strongly negative feelings about immigration, while Biden voters have moderately positive views towards immigration. There are a few lessons we can draw from this survey.

First, we advocates have seemingly failed to convince the American public about the importance of a more liberal immigration policy. In a sense, this is not surprising, since there are many critical issues competing for the attention of left-leaning voters (the # 1 issue in the survey was climate change). While we have to keep educating the public and pushing for the reforms we need, we also must be realistic about how much we can do to change attitudes about immigration.

Second, and more significantly, we need to recognize the limits of our ability to achieve major immigration reform. We are limited by the strong anti-immigration views held by many Americans. And we are limited by the relative ambivalence of those Americans who share our goals. Given that we are navigating into strong head winds with only moderate tail winds, perhaps we should re-think our destination. Maybe we should aim for something more modest than the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which seeks to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants. An example of that would be the Dream Act, which the House passed last week.

But even this generally popular reform is being hampered by the situation at the border. Senate Republicans "made it clear... that any measure that includes legalization would be difficult [to pass] absent measures that would bolster border enforcement and tighten U.S. asylum laws." Tying the Dream Act to the border crisis is unfair, as the two issues are almost completely unrelated. But that is the world we live in.

Given that resistance to reform is grounded largely in issues related to the border, and that public support for immigration reform remains fairly tepid, why not compromise? Why not trade comprehensive immigration reform for a more impermeable border? That would potentially help millions of people who are already here. It would also reduce the temperature of the immigration debate, which is largely focused on "caravans" bringing "diseases" and "terrorists" into our country.

As far as I can tell, however, most immigration advocates seem unwilling to consider such a compromise. Indeed, as I perceive it, mainstream immigration organizations are largely focusing their energy on the border. I understand why: The people coming to our country and seeking protection have often endured severe harm in their countries and great difficulties on their journeys to the U.S. To know them, even a little, is to sympathize with their plight. Nevertheless, I think this focus on the border mis-reads the moment.

For one thing, I fear we will squander the post-Trump momentum for immigration reform. We're seeing progress on certain bills--for Dreamers and farmworkers--but if the focus shifts to the political crisis at the border, we could easily lose that momentum. The immigration bills that passed in the House had some Republican support. However, the hurdle is higher in the Senate, and with border enforcement tied to any type of immigration reform, passage there is in real doubt.

Further, we need to work on healing our country. While the Populace survey shows that we often perceive our divisions to be worse than they are, the divide over immigration is real. By conceding on the most contentious aspect of immigration (the border), I believe we can defuse some of the tension and help bring some unity to our nation. I know that some on the Left would disagree with this conclusion. Segments of the Left equate restrictive border policies with racism. While this is clearly true for some restrictionists, it is not uniformly true, and we should not pretend that there are no legitimate reasons for tighter borders.

Finally, as I have discussed before, we as a country have never had a proper conversation about who should qualify for asylum. The majority of arrivals from Central America are not traditional asylum seekers, and they qualify for protection mostly due to litigation that has expanded the definition of "refugee." While I personally feel that this expansion was the right thing to do, the failure to reach a democratic conclusion about who qualifies for protection means that our border policy has been built upon a very unstable foundation. Without public support or understanding, the border "crisis" is easily exploited for the political gain of restrictionists.

President Trump's 2016 campaign relied on anti-immigration rhetoric. It worked then, and similar efforts could work now. We face a real risk that all the effort and energy going toward immigration reform will be for naught. Perhaps compromising on the border will lead nowhere. Perhaps Senate Republicans will resist immigration reform under all circumstances. Compromise is not easy and it is often painful, but it is the nature of democracy, and I think it is worth considering. The window of opportunity is short and the need for reform is great. Nothing should be off the table, and a partial solution is better than no solution. If tightening the border is the price for immigration reform, it may well be the best solution we can achieve in an imperfect world.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: