Immigration: Emotion trumps logic

I’m starting to see the immigration fight in Congress as a botched real estate transaction. On one side of the deal is a teary-eyed and reluctant seller who’s being asked to transfer ownership of his family’s multi-generational “home place” to a buyer who wants to tear down the old house and build a new office or store on the property. On the other side is a commercial developer with ice water in his veins who sees this as just another transaction.

In this sort of standoff, almost all the emotion is on the home seller’s side. Commercial real estate developers don’t let sentiment get in the way of buying or selling property by the square foot. They cannot understand why a seller would put protecting “the porch that grandpa built” ahead of a payday that would build a nice new and even bigger porch on the other side of town. Experienced developers have learned to walk away from these emotional deals, recognizing they cannot win.

That may foreshadow the ultimate outcome for immigration reform advocates. They don’t have emotion on their side and it may be their undoing. From the beginning, reform proponents have been coolly logical problem-solvers. They recognize that we have millions of workers and their families living in the U.S. illegally. We cannot deport them all, they rationally conclude, so we must have a program to resolve their status. And because we can’t keep making the same mistake we made in the 1980s when we last “fixed” immigration policies, this time we have to have a real border security effort. It’s a very reasoned and reasonable proposal in the reformers’ well-ordered minds.

But there’s a problem. There is little or no passion these days for good government like that outlined in the Senate’s immigration bill. The only time I have seen genuine passion from proponents is when anyone challenged their bill or motivations. Think of when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) teed off on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for daring to propose an amendment to the fragile compromise. But other than a few isolated moments, when frazzled reformers have momentarily exploded in the presence of political threats, little passion for passage emanates from their side.

On the other side, emotion is overflowing its banks and the levee is threatening to break at any moment. Just check out the blogs, turn on talk radio or glance at your local letters-to-the-editor column if you don’t believe it. The ferocity of this emotion threatens to undermine the rational solution that reformers seek. Even though hard-core opponents — by the most generous of estimates — comprise no more than one-third of the electorate, their hyper-emotional response to the issue frightens leaders who are on the fence. Rather than looking at polls and concluding that reform is possible, the fence-straddlers are scared away by the passion of opponents that call or write their offices daily.

I have read several analyses in recent days bemoaning that this Congress is not handling immigration like one of its predecessors handled the touchy issue of welfare reform. This analogy doesn’t work because in that situation the welfare reformers had emotion on their side. The grassroots crowd that now blocks any talk of immigration reform was in that era a “hair on fire” mob clamoring for quick, comprehensive action by Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure what pro-reform emotion would look like. Surely the occasional outbursts by immigrant communities several weeks back, characterized by raucous parades and school walkouts, are not helpful to reformers’ cause. But as long as all the emotion resides on the opponents’ side of the ledger, there will be no rush to compromise and a deal.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.