After two weeks spent waffling on immigration, and making noises on the subject largely indistinguishable from those of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, Donald Trump has settled on a hawkish position — and a practical one. Trump’s crowd-pleasing antics aside, in his immigration speech in Phoenix, Ariz., on Wednesday he laid out a sensible, realistic path forward on genuine immigration reform.
Trump’s plan, even in its most primitive iterations, always has been based on the entirely commonsensical principle that America’s immigration policy should serve American interests. Taking this as a starting point, Trump laid out a ten-point policy that emphasizes securing the border, enforcing immigration laws, prioritizing the removal of criminal aliens, and creating the legal and economic disincentives necessary to reduce illegal immigration in the long term.
These are the right priorities. On border security, Trump renewed his commitment to a “physical” wall on the southern border (as well as, alas, his absurd promise that Mexico would pay for it), pledged to swell the ranks of the understaffed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agencies, and vowed to deploy technology, such as below-ground sensors, to aid them. He also promised an end to the catch-and-release policies that have defined the Obama-era commitment (or lack thereof) to border security and to defund sanctuary cities (an initiative that would, of course, have to come out of Congress). And as Trump noted, about half of America’s illegal-immigrant population overstayed legally gotten visas, meaning that a comprehensive visa-overstay tracking system of the sort he is proposing is also crucial part of any real enforcement agenda.
Trump would add to this an expanded use of E-Verify, which would help prevent employers from exploiting illegal labor and so make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to find work. “Turning off the jobs and benefits magnet,” to use Trump’s words, would make the prospect of entering and residing in the country less enticing for foreigners. If immigration trends at the height of the Great Recession are any indication, a sizable number of illegal immigrants are likely to return home when jobs are not readily available.
It’s for this reason that the common refrain of either amnesty or mass deportations is a false choice. Much of our illegal-immigrant population is here because the economic incentives outweigh the possible costs. Reversing that calculus would cause many to go home. But deportation is still a necessary tool. Trump has rightly determined to focus limited government resources on criminal aliens — illegal aliens residing in the country who have committed crimes. This superficially resembles the Obama administration’s stated enforcement policy, but, of course, the administration has gutted interior enforcement, while Trump is promising to strengthen it dramatically.
Additionally, Trump says that “we will reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers.” One element should be a major reduction in low-skilled legal immigration, a glut of which over the past several decades predictably has held down wages in low-skill jobs. Also, the use of high-skilled workers to undercut their American counterparts in the tech industry shows the need to reform the H-1B visa program.
Trump’s speech did not address what would be done with the sizable number of illegal immigrants who would inevitably remain in the country following the enactment of his enforcement policies. On the radio on Thursday morning, he said that the decision would come “once everything is stabilized,” but added: “I think you’re going to see there’s really quite a bit of softening.” But enforcement policies of the sort outlined above would, in all likelihood, significantly reduce the illegal-immigrant population residing in the country and make the question of what to do with the rest easier to address.
Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has frequently been reckless, and on occasion he has seemed to play to feelings of animosity. He would be well served to strike a soberer tone. But on the merits, Trump has put forward a responsible immigration agenda.