Is the GOP's Tragedy of the Commons Problem Undoing Immigration Reform?

For some time, everyone in Washington assumed that if any major piece of legislation had the chance to pass this year, it was going to be immigration reform. At last it seemed Republican and Democratic interests had come into alignment! Democrats have wanted reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, for a long time. Republicans have finally realized that telling Latino voters "We don't like your kind" every couple of years is very bad politics. So with bipartisan "gangs" in both houses of Congress working on reform packages, it appeared that things were moving toward passage.

Until the last couple of days, that is. Things are starting to look bleak.

First we heard about an amendment coming from John Cornyn and Marco Rubio that sets almost impossible conditions on any path to citizenship; as Politico described it, the amendment "would require 100 percent operational control of the Southern borders and that 90 percent of illegal border crossers be apprehended. It would also require 100 percent border surveillance, or situational awareness, of each one-mile segment of the Southern border and installment of a national E-Verify system before registered immigrants can pursue green cards." If that's an accurate description of the green card provision, that part isn't a problem, since under the packages now being written it would be eight or ten years before immigrants with the new provisionally legal status would be allowed to even apply for green cards (if it's actually not about green cards but the provisional legal status, that's another matter; a universal E-verify system would be difficult, but not impossible, to put in place in a reasonable amount of time). But the idea that we can get to 90 percent of illegal border crossers being apprehended and 100 percent of the border being under surveillance is a fantasy, unless we want to turn ourselves into East Germany circa 1962. Right now about half of border crossers are apprehended, and that's after huge investments in fences and border patrol agents. This is nothing but a poison pill; it's like your mom saying, "Sure honey, you can go out sledding, just as soon as you construct a snowsuit that meets NASA standards for the vacuum of space and is certified warm down to temperatures of minus 200 degrees celsius."

And Rubio is saying that unless the security provisions are strengthened (presumably with this amendment or something like it), he'll vote against the bill he himself negotiated. Meanwhile, the Republican Latino in the House's "gang of eight," Raul Labrador, just announced that he's dropping out of that effort, and other reports say the House gang is going to be breaking up, because Republicans are insisting that previously undocumented immigrants not be allowed to participate in Obamacare in any way, including just being permitted to buy insurance with their own money through the exchanges, through the entire 13 to 15 year process before they become citizens. At the moment I won't bother getting into how morally despicable this position is, but it does look like all the Republicans involved are searching for any excuse they can find to abandon immigration reform.

Maybe this is all an elaborate game, and what somebody like Rubio wants is to make sure everyone knows that though he eventually came around, he was dragged kicking and screaming to reform, and it only happened after he stood up for conservative principles. Or maybe he has decided that "Marco Rubio, deliverer of immigration reform" is a less appealing 2016 Republican presidential primary candidate than "Marco Rubio, destroyer of amnesty for illegals." Which could well be true; it's one thing for the party to decide it doesn't want a rerun of the immigrant-bashing of the 2008 and 2012 presidential primaries, but it's the same extremely conservative primary voters to whom the candidates will be pandering. And if Rubio defects, a lot of other Republicans will feel like that gives them the cover to do so as well; they can say, "I listened to Marco Rubio on this" and associate themselves with the most prominent Latino Republican.

But at bottom, Republicans are facing a tragedy of the commons problem here, where the rational decision for each individual results in an outcome where everyone in the group suffers. As a whole, the Republican Party needs immigration reform to pass, so they can stop the bleeding of their image with Latino voters. But many, perhaps most, of the individual representatives need to vote against reform in order to keep their conservative white constituents happy and forestall a primary challenge from the right. So if you're a Republican congressman, the best outcome is that you vote against the bill, but it passes anyway. That way you get to tell the folks back home that you stood up against amnesty, but your party doesn't suffer one more blow among the rising Latino electorate.

Nevertheless, it's important to remember that reform already has enough votes to pass in both houses. Even without the poison pill security provisions, Senate Democrats could probably find the few Republicans they'd need to join all the Democrats and overcome a Republican filibuster. Likewise, in the House a bill could pass with all the Democrats and 20 or so Republicans. But that's contingent on Speaker John Boehner allowing a bill to come up for a vote if it doesn't have the support of most of his caucus. So it could be that the outcome depends on Republicans understanding their tragedy of the commons problem, and finding it sufficient for each individual to make a show of trying to defeat reform, but not actually fighting it too hard.

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