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Opinion | Can two former presidents unravel the immigration knot?

Nearly everyone thinks we should fully welcome the dreamers. That should provide a starting ground for successful negotiation, not the end of the discussion.

How to get immigration reform done was at the center of a long interview I did Thursday with former president George W. Bush. His new book, “Out of Many, One,” is a powerful collection of portraits and stories of immigrants to the United States. Anyone who reads it with an open mind will be inspired by the relentless determination of the people who make it to America from literally every corner of the world, sometimes crossing frozen rivers in North Korea to begin their journey to the United States or the shallow fords of the Rio Grande to finish it. Bush’s compact accounts of the often-perilous journeys of new Americans are as moving as his beautiful portraits. His thinking on immigration is well known, but this book aims to persuade by example, and it will if widely read.

I began writing about the obvious “go big” option for immigration reform years ago, and my position hasn’t changed. It’s based on Henry Kissinger’s guidance in his book “Diplomacy”: Any complex negotiation is made easier by introducing more issues into the discussion. That way, all parties can achieve some acceptable result. If the parties begin with everything on the table, they are much more likely to end up at some agreement than if they narrowed their options from the start. If some steps are immediate and others spread over years, that’s okay; conciliation develops. Negotiations accelerate.

Bush disagrees. He would like to break immigration down into smaller parts and see rapid action on the dreamers to start. Most Americans support making the dreamers full-fledged citizens. But the dreamers are just a piece of the puzzle, so I argued that lawmakers should address these immigrants along with a solution for millions of other non-legal residents as well as completing 900 total miles of wall along the southern border.

The former president cautioned that critics of “going big” will call that “amnesty.” But those voices shouldn’t deter a deal favored by most Americans from moving forward. The key is the wall and border security for the right and a pathway to citizenship for the center and the left. Repairing the broken asylum rules and creating special entrance provisions for groups such as translators who assisted our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are also important first steps.

Congressional “gangs” of eight, 14 or 20 fail because of the same dynamic that has plagued every collapsed effort for three decades: Insular staffs on the Hill deal with the same old special interest groups; they assemble, sequester and produce an unreadable glop of hundreds of pages of dense legislative text, which no one can understand.

The oldest of Beltway magic tricks could in fact work here: A bipartisan commission, especially if it was led by Bush and Bill Clinton and included members to their left and right, could break the logjam, particularly if it worked under the admonition that whatever it produced had to be no longer than a couple of Homestead Acts. (The first of those, in 1862, ran less than 2,000 words and somehow settled vast stretches of the United States.) Laws, like political columns, benefit from clarity — and tight word counts.

The country can never solve this pressing problem without a driving personality (or two) and a tight deadline. President Biden can ask two of his predecessors to gather five to 10 smart folks each and dive in, free to work away from the congressional forest that claims so many lost wanderers in so many familiar traps and snares.

If such a task force brought back a streamlined proposal, one easy for the public to read and understand, it could rally millions of Americans who are sick of deadlock, aware that we need more people to lift our economy…

Read More: Opinion | Can two former presidents unravel the immigration knot?

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