Immigration Bait and Switch
Does President Trump want a bipartisan deal on immigration, or is his talk merely for cable-TV show? Two weeks ago he suggested the former, but on Sunday evening the White House issued demands that will make any agreement well-nigh impossible.
The issue is how to fix Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama program that granted work permits and legal immunity to some 800,000 young adults who were brought into the U.S. illegally as minors. Last month the Administration announced that it would end DACA in six months, giving Congress time to pass a permanent fix for these so-called Dreamers.
Mr. Trump declared at the time that he and Democratic leaders—“Chuck and Nancy”—were close to a deal that traded DACA legalization for bolstering border security but no “wall” on the Mexican-U.S. border. But Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration supporters howled in protest, and it now appears they have turned the President against his own deal-making.
The new White House demands include 70 immigration “priorities” that amount to everything that the restrictionist right has ever sought. They include appropriating funds to complete a wall along the southern border and slashing legal immigration by half.
The White House also wants to mandate that all employers use E-Verify to check workers’ legal status despite the program’s spotty record. And it wants Congress to expand employment-discrimination laws to replace U.S. citizens with foreign workers, which would be a sop to trial lawyers and unions. Just what the American economy needs: more labor lawsuits.
According to the White House document, “immigrants who come here illegally and enter the workforce undermine job opportunities and reduce wages for American workers, as does the abuse of visa programs.” What alternative economy are they living in? The real labor problem is a shortage, as the jobless rate has hit 4.2% nationwide. America’s tight visa caps are sending high-tech jobs to Canada and agricultural production to Mexico.
These problems would be exacerbated by the White House demand that Congress restrict “low-skilled immigration” and establish a putative merit-based immigration system with too few visas or green cards. Politicians would arbitrarily assign points to foreign applicants based on metrics like pay and education. Farm and construction workers need not apply. “Chained” immigration for extended family members of U.S. citizens and green card holders would also be abolished, thus encouraging more illegal entries.
The White House also calls for restricting grants to “sanctuary” jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal authorities or even that merely provide services or benefits to immigrants that aren’t covered by federal law. This means far more than left-wing cities such as San Francisco and could encompass Florida and Texas, which provide immigrants in-state tuition benefits.
The Administration also wants Congress to finance an additional 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. But the greater imperative is hiring more immigration judges to work through the current backlog of 632,000 cases, including 24,000 involving criminals.
It’s hard to know if Mr. Trump intends all this as a serious negotiating offer, or merely as poison pills. The case for the latter is that he is demanding money for the wall, which he knows is a nonstarter with Democrats.
Many Republicans also oppose the wall as a needless waste of money that won’t stop criminals and drug traffickers. The costs would vastly outweigh any benefits, especially since border apprehensions have been falling during the Trump Administration and are down 24% from last year. The number of unaccompanied children who are apprehended has dropped by more than half since last October.
If Mr. Trump feels he needs a symbolic wall victory, he’d be smarter to settle for a virtual wall with drones, aerostat blimps and towers with infrared sensors to fill gaps in fencing where the border patrol has difficulty accessing. Newer technology has facial recognition features that can capture biometric data. A virtual wall could be installed within months, not years, and it can be continually improved.
The political reality is that most of Mr. Trump’s demands have no chance of passing no matter which party controls Congress. The President and his anti-immigration strategist—White House aide Stephen Miller —may think DACA is the only carrot big enough to leverage their agenda through Congress. But most Democrats will be only too happy to blame Republicans next year if DACA expires without a fix and young adults start getting deported to countries where they have no family.
This would be a humanitarian calamity, and a monumental lost political opportunity. Mr. Trump needs legislative victories to show he can govern, but his immigration bait and switch may guarantee another failure.
Appeared in the October 10, 2017, print edition.