In 2010, 54 percent of Americans thought our immigration system was broken. Today, that number is 74 percent. Aaron Blake of the Washington Post contends that this means “immigration reform” is winning. This seems a strange comment, because public fears about our defunct immigration system don’t guarantee better policy. We could, by a seeming lack of options, simply exacerbate all that is worst in our current immigration system. Alternatively, critics of the current system could begin the process of creating a broad-based reform coalition.

That immigration reform has hit rough waters is obvious. The best-known of America’s immigration reformers is President Obama and Obama’s approval rating on immigration is currently 37 percent.The approval rating for Obama’s executive amnesty and work permit plan is at 39 percent. A few more such victories and you would think that the cause of immigration reform is done for.

But it isn’t done, no matter how many times amnesty fails in Congress and no matter if Obama’s approval ratings stay in the thirties until doomsday. The cause of reform will stay viable because the Obama version of reform (which is also the establishment Republican form of immigration reform) is the only positive immigration policy that that seems to be on offer.

Let us look at what Obama/establishment-Republican immigration reform means. Most illegal immigrants in the U.S. would receive amnesty, while enforcement measures (especially internal enforcement) would be delayed and possibly never implemented at all—which would over time produce a new large population of unauthorized immigrants. The Obama/establishment-Republican version of immigration reform would also significantly increase future immigration and especially guest worker programs and low-skill immigration.

Opponents of this vision of reform have managed to stall its passage in Congress, but a negative victory is not enough. Eventually a bad plan will beat no plan. Opponents of the kind of immigration policy favored by both parties’ Washington establishments need to coalesce around a positive immigration reform agenda of their own.

One can see the outline of such an agenda in a letter written to President Obama by a group of House Republicans. They argued that it was unconscionable that Obama supported increasing low-skill guest worker programs at a time when many workers at the lower end of the skill distribution were having difficulty finding work. The House Republicans made the point that the business lobbies that were clamoring for more labor should seek to find their future employees from among . . . the unemployed.

The House Republican letter is a good starting place for a better immigration reform (especially in its solicitude for lower-skill workers) but it is still more a roadblock than an alternative. We need a plan that addresses public concerns about immigration policy in a realistic way. The public is concerned about the plight of our current, large population of unauthorized immigrants. A policy of “self-deportation” fails to address those concerns and leaves the mantle of reform to those who want to allow for the creation of a future underclass of illegal workers and a second underclass of guest workers—even as the wages of low-skill workers have stagnated for decades.

An alternative immigration reform agenda ought to be based on a vision of social solidarity. No more second-class citizenships and no permanent underclasses. Internal enforcement (in the form of workplace verification and a visa tracking system) should be implemented first in order to minimize the size of any future illegal population. After that, an amnesty and a relatively speedy path to citizenship should become available to unauthorized immigrants of long-standing. There should be no “guest workers.” The people we invite to come to our country should be invited as presumptive future citizens. Future immigration should favor skills and language proficiency—just as the American public would prefer.

This would require some willingness to compromise from the “right” of the political spectrum on the question of amnesty, but even immigration restrictionists like Mark Krikorian agree that some kind of amnesty is part of the policy end game. Politicians need to be able to make that same concession in principle as part of broader strategy for promoting a better version of immigration reform. The choice is not really between self-deportation and Washington establishment-style reform. Self-deportation is never going to happen. The real choice is between forever fighting off the lawless and poverty-increasing immigration policies of the bipartisan establishment, or crafting a real immigration reform based on citizenship, equality, and opportunity.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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