Donald Trump’s immigration plan is now shrouded in confusion. News reports suggest that he signaled an openness to amnesty in a meeting with Hispanic supporters over the weekend. On Sunday’s political shows, both campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Senator Jeff Sessions declined to restate his prior support for mass deportation.
If Trump is indeed recalibrating his policy, he would be well served to abandon his current posture. We never like it when politicians say one thing in the primaries and then shift in the general, but he never should have committed to such a foolish policy in the first place. It perversely combines support for a fantastical policy of deportation of all illegal immigrants — an administrative impossibility — with a soft-headed “touch-back” amnesty that would allow some portion of the deportees to return to America with legal status. If deported illegal immigrants are going to come right back, it makes little sense to deport them in the first place, which is why Trump might have begun crab-walking his way to a less convoluted form of amnesty in his meeting, although accounts differ over what he said or what he might have meant.
The way to cut through this morass is with a workable, politically sustainable enforcement-first policy of the sort that Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has set out in our pages repeatedly. It begins with enforcement at the border and other ports of entry and — significantly — at the place of employment with an e-verify system. If it is harder to work here illegally, fewer people will come, and people already here will be more likely to leave under their own power. An irony of the immigration debate is that the same doves who argue that mass migration is inevitable cite the recent net-zero immigration from Mexico to pooh-pooh concerns about the border. Mexicans haven’t stopped coming, but the entries have been matched by exits — showing that it is possible to get illegal immigrants to leave.
Deportation is an entirely legitimate tool of enforcement, and it must be part of any functioning immigration system, but it is easier to achieve a big change in the illegal population through attrition, or what Mitt Romney was lambasted (including by Donald Trump) for calling “self-deportation.”
Once the illegal population has measurably diminished, then we can have a discussion about what to do with the balance of the illegal population. It might make sense at that point to exchange legalization (a significant portion of the illegal population has been here more than ten years and isn’t leaving) for changes in the legal immigration system, including lower overall numbers and drastically diminished low-skilled immigration. But the first step is enforcing the laws that we already have.
We are at a loss as to why more Republicans don’t take this position on the issue. Polling on immigration is often tendentious, but it suggests the public supports this broad outline. If Trump adopted it, he would be functionally tougher on illegal immigration while being both less radioactive and more practical. He could then portray Hillary Clinton, who apparently opposes all deportation except for criminals, as the true radical on immigration. If he’s groping toward clarity on his policy, this is the way to find it.