Politics & Policy

Donald Trump’s Amnesty

(John Moore/Getty)

That Donald Trump has said something incoherent is not remarkable. But even for a campaign that has largely substituted adjectives for ideas, Trump’s recent incoherent comments on immigration were remarkable, coming as they do from a candidate who has made immigration the keystone of his platform. His intellectual failure is instructive, and the other candidates should learn from it.

Trump’s original proposal was to build a wall and force the government of Mexico to pay for it. The latter half of that proposition is too silly to merit much criticism and may be dismissed as bluster. The first half is a little more complicated: The actual geography of the U.S.–Mexico border ensures that there will not be a wall, though a series of barriers is desirable. But that is only a small part of the solution: Walls can be ascended or tunneled under, and must be patrolled; recent research suggests that more than half of new illegals do not sneak cross any border but simply enter legally and overstay their visas; no effective national system is in place to enforce our immigration laws at the critical place: the work site. “Build a wall” is at most a part of the broader solution.

Asked about his immigration ideas on CNN, Trump was a mess, beginning with the old “jobs Americans won’t do” canard favored by open-borders proponents (a canard because it always leaves out the relevant qualifier: “at current wages”), then suggesting that we should deport the millions of illegals who are already here only to turn around and bring them back (“I want to move them out, and we’re going to move them back in, and let them be legal”). This process would include those brought here as young children, who will be deported and recycled based on the criterion of whether they are — Trump’s word — “terrific.” What might constitute a federal terrificness standard remains unclear. “We’re going to do something,” Trump said. “I’ve been giving it so much thought. You know you have a, on a humanitarian basis, you have a lot of deep thought going into this, believe me. I actually have a big heart.”

This issue, like so many others, requires less heart-power and more brain-power.

RELATED: We Need Facts, Not Weasel Words, on Immigration

Deporting some 11 million illegals who have for many years evaded deportation only to reimport them under an expedited legal immigration system, the contours of which currently are undefined, and then granting them some sort of permanent legal status is simply another variation on amnesty, and a complicated, expensive, and thick-headed version of amnesty at that. Like the proposed reform program of 2007, which would have purportedly required illegals to be present in their country of origin when applying for legal status, this isn’t just amnesty — it’s also amnesty-laundering.

“Do something,” Trump says, and the perceived immediate need to do something — something — about immigration is what drives politicians toward amnesty and “comprehensive” reform schemes. And there is a need to do something immediately, but it is not what Trump or most other political candidates seem to think.

RELATED: Without Detention There Is No Immigration Enforcement

There is, in fact, no pressing immediate need to either deport the 11 million illegals, including those brought here as young children, or to normalize their status. Many of them have been here for decades, and while this situation is deeply undesirable, it is no more undesirable today than it was five years ago. Deciding what to do about the illegal population already resident in the United States is important, but it is of secondary importance.

The first item on any intelligent immigration-reform agenda is: Secure the borders of the United States and start enforcing our immigration laws.

The first item on any intelligent immigration-reform agenda is: Secure the borders of the United States and start enforcing our immigration laws. Not only is that the first item on the agenda, until it is done it should be the only item on the agenda, since in the absence of secure borders and robust immigration controls any conceivable proposal to resolve the status of the illegals already here would simply provide another incentive for additional illegal immigration. That is not workable as a practical matter or as a political matter.

Republicans have made the politics of this more difficult than they need to be. A plurality of Americans supports reducing our current levels of immigration, legal and illegal; only a tiny minority wants higher levels of immigration; enforcement is very popular, including among the Hispanic voters that Republicans believe themselves to be courting with indulgent attitudes toward illegals. National security, economics, prudence, and the poll numbers are all united on the right side of the issue, but Republicans aren’t.

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Here is the coherent immigration platform that Republicans, including many conservatives, cannot quite seem to articulate: 1. Build and supplement border barriers where appropriate, and see to it that they are patrolled; 2. Develop an effective system for tracking those who overstay their visas, deport over-stayers, and impose heavy sanctions on them, up to and including a lifetime ban on future travel to the United States; 3. Mandate the national use of E-Verify or another system for checking employment eligibility, and then take the necessary additional step of making sure that records are current and complete so as to avoid the use of hijacked Social Security numbers; 4. Reform employment laws to impose much heavier penalties on those who employ illegals, and to make those cases easier to prosecute; 5. Decline to renew the legal status granted under President Obama’s executive amnesty; and then, when that’s done, on the matter of the illegals who are already here, do . . . more or less what we’ve been doing, at least for a while, deporting those illegals who come into custody as we do under current protocols.

If we can control our borders and inland ports of entry and substantially reduce the economic incentives for illegal immigration — marching a few meatpacking executives off to prison, if it comes to that — then it is very likely that we will find our illegal-immigrant problem somewhat mitigated. Mitt Romney was mocked for suggesting that “self-deportation” could play an important role in dealing with illegal immigrants, but experience suggests that it is effective: When recessions have reduced the economic incentives to immigration, we’ve seen fewer illegals cross the border and resident illegals cross it going the other way.

#related#Once real enforcement is in place, we will have a much better idea of what our illegal-immigrant situation looks like in the context of secure borders and meaningful universal workplace screening. It is almost certain that the problem will look very different in that context than under current conditions, probably in some ways that will be unexpected. For that reason and for the others described above, no new national policy resolving the status of resident illegals should even be contemplated until real border security has been achieved.

Republicans should press for enforcement as a standalone proposal, not as part of a wider immigration compromise. Once that enforcement is in place, then we can open the discussion about broader subsequent reforms. That discussion should be oriented toward serving — radical as this may sound — the interest of the United States and the American people, economic and otherwise. Those interests are not well-served by steady flows of poor and unskilled workers or by the maintenance of an unassimilated underclass.

We don’t expect Donald Trump to grasp these subtleties. But there are 16 other candidates in the race, and one of them ought to try getting this right.   

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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