Dreams of Deliberation: Why Congress Needs to Revive the Comatose Art


On Tuesday, September 6, President Trump formally announced his intention to wind down the immigration policy established by Former President Obama called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA allowed children of immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as minors, to receive deferred action on deportation on a renewable two-year basis and granted them a work permit. Critics of the policy charged the former president with executive overreach, saying that he had exceeded his executive authority and effectively written immigration law.

While the immigration law supporting the former President’s actions is pretty fuzzy at best, with a federal court having already ruled it as an overreach of executive authority, the problem it was trying to address was crystal clear. However, it’s probably not the one you think.

The reason DACA was necessary in the first place was because of congressional inaction over the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM act, for short). This bill, which has been introduced over the course of several sessions of Congress, would create a path for residency status for millions of minors. The economic benefits of this bill would be substantial, according to several analyses, like this one done by Cato scholars, allowing federal deficits to drop and millions of jobs to be added. Oh, and millions of minors with uncertain legal statuses would gain a path to residency in the process. This seems like the things bipartisan legislative dreams are made of, right?

For a number of reasons, the bill hasn’t passed and really hasn’t been considered. Most of those have to do with the short-sighted nature of the debate surrounding immigration. Very quickly, both sides took up polarized positions, with Republicans painting supporters of the bill as reckless Polyannas, naïvely undermining legal immigration through amnesty, and Democrats painting opponents of the bill as modern Know-Nothings, intent on dogmatically peddling false dichotomies through half hearted jeremiads about national security.

With President Trump’s rescinding of DACA, some might view this as an opportunity for more partisan bickering or pitched reflexively ideological battles. After all, regardless of whether the bill passes or fails, there is sure to be more than a bit of grandstanding and posturing to be done. However, I believe there are two golden opportunities that Congress can’t afford to pass up in this process.

The first? The opportunity to actually legislate on an issue that matters. Seemingly, Congress, particularly the last couple of sessions has had difficulty actually passing anything that matters. It could be argued, in fact, that since the Affordable Care Act was enacted over seven years ago in 2010 that Congress hasn’t passed a genuinely meaningful piece of legislation. In fact, Congress has spent that time deferring to bureaucracies, executive agencies, and the status quo whenever possible, and punting on any issue that can’t be deferred on for some distant time into the future, when goodwill and intellectual honesty are sprinkled over the land. Why?

Well, firstly, legislating meaningfully is difficult. It requires careful attention to detail, an ability to debate the finer points of complex ideas without resorting to dismissing the idea because of a lack of knowledge or understanding. Intellectual honesty also carries a difficult set of demands, because it might force you to acknowledge that your opponent has a better argument than yours, or that you might not have the answers to some important and valid questions or concerns you hadn’t thought of.

Secondly, it requires humility and courage. A humility to understand that no bill that deals with any meaningful topic could possibly account for every future circumstance, and that just because every really good idea you or your party has might not make it into a bill, doesn’t automatically make the bill useless. It requires courage, to be held publicly accountable for a bill that you might have had private reservations about supporting, or even privately opposed.

Lastly, and this is probably the most important point, it requires imagination and vision. More than anything else, this third point is vital for debating meaningfully. Before debating the finer points of a particular bill or series of bills, it’s important to have a vision for how they fit into a broader conversation about not just one ephemeral flare-up fueled the 24-hour news cycle, but a series of issues.

In the case of the DREAM Act and the fates of DACA recipients, I believe there’s the opportunity to have a truly meaningful conversation about a number of issues. First, on the fates of DREAMers who, I believe, should be given the chance to stay in the only country they’ve ever known. More broadly, however, it’s an opportunity to have a more expansive conversation about immigration on a much less reflexive level.

What are the rights of responsibilities of migrants and immigrants? Of the country they migrate to? What does it mean to do justice to those who are in the process of immigrating legally? How do you strike a balance between the justice necessary in upholding the rule of law and mercy in holding together the families of undocumented workers? Is there a way to account for the rightful desire of those already in the country for safety? What does assimilation for these groups truly look like? These are just a few questions that could, and should, be raised in a truly broadening conversation about immigration policy.

Expanding the conversation even further, a useful conversation to have could be one about the role of immigrants and immigration in our economy. After all, immigration could conceivably be thought of as a method of talent acquisition, particularly if highly-skilled workers are part of the equation. When considered in that context, it’s clear that not only is the immigration system of the United States broken, but that the United States as a whole is horrifically inefficient at talent development and acquisition. Simply put, we as a country are really bad at creating an environment that allows everyone, regardless of whether they are natural born citizens or immigrants to flourish and contribute to the broader workforce.

These questions about the broader purposes of immigration, and really, what the vision of talent development should be, should be the work of what James Buchanan once referred to as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” While it’s clear that Congress hasn’t actually deliberated on issues in a long time, it’s imperative that they relearn the art. Otherwise, the only debate that will be left to be had will be how quickly Congress will fade into permanent irrelevance.