Politics & Policy

Stopping the Flow of Illegal Immigrants

Donald Trump, who leapt to the front of the Republican presidential field with his tough immigration stance, promises to deport every illegal immigrant residing in the country in less than two years, with the help of a “deportation force” — and, naturally, critics are warning of jackbooted thugs and midnight raids. There is no need for either. Much of our problem can be resolved through more modest — and less inflammatory — measures.

Estimates from the Center for Migration Studies and the Pew Research Center show that, of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, approximately 2.5 million arrived after Barack Obama’s inauguration. Yet the overall number of illegal immigrants in the country has remained fairly static, meaning that illegal immigrants have been coming and going in about equal numbers. Why? Because, contrary to much political rhetoric, many illegal immigrants are not here to stay, and so are very sensitive to incentives: When the prospect of profitable work outweighs the risk of falling afoul of law enforcement, they come; when it doesn’t, they leave.

As it happens, that is a key lesson of the Eisenhower-era program that Trump has cited as the inspiration for his own deportation plan. “Operation Wetback” was a ham-handed government response to a problem that government itself had created, through the “Bracero” guest-worker program. The prospects of decent farm work spurred hundreds of thousands of foreigners northward, and many of those who could not gain authorization to work crossed the border in the hope of finding work illegally. By the early 1950s, the program, which had begun in 1942, had fostered the largest illegal population in American history. Once the crackdown began, the majority of people who left did so of their own volition, preferring not to be swept up in the program’s neighborhood dragnets.

Critics are warning of jackbooted thugs and midnight raids. There is no need for either.

No dragnets are necessary now, either. It is possible to dramatically reduce the illegal-immigrant population by making it difficult or unprofitable for them to work in the United States, and by more aggressively enforcing the laws already on the books. The former can be done by implementing E-Verify nationwide — for new hires, as opposed to existing ones — and actually penalizing employers who hire illegal aliens; the latter by increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, restoring the relations between ICE and local law enforcement that the Obama administration has worked assiduously to sever, and increasing penalties for visa overstays. This will, of course, entail deportations, which is entirely legitimate. After all, illegal immigrants who come into custody are deported under current protocols (or, at least, are supposed to be). When the illegal-immigrant population has been reduced to a more manageable level, a responsible administration could entertain different avenues to granting legal status.

It is crucial, though, that we end the flow of illegal immigrants across our borders before dealing with those already here — otherwise, an amnesty will inevitably only draw the next population of illegal immigrants. To that end, a Republican administration should, among other things, seek to erect physical barriers along the southern border, end catch-and-release policies, and work with Congress to defund sanctuary cities.

#share#Only after enforcement measures such as E-Verify are fully implemented and the illegal population has been actually declining should any other major measures be considered. We’re always told that it is urgent to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows.” But the plight of illegal immigrants is no more urgent now than it was a few years ago, or a few years before that.

As one might expect, Trump’s plan for mass deportations is not part of his published immigration platform; it seems to be a work of improvisation developing from morning show to morning show. Republicans can do better. Hillary Clinton has already voiced her support for entrenching and extending the executive amnesties of the Obama administration. Republicans have the opportunity to offer a realistic, politically sustainable alternative that finally takes the nation’s immigration laws seriously. 

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

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