What Happened to Dealing with Illegal Immigration?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Field Office Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations David Marin and ICE’s Fugitive Operations team arrest a Mexican national at a home in Paramount, Calif., March 1, 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Chasing actual lawbreakers around? That’s work.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I   am not very much worried about President Donald Trump’s tweet-bombing the U.S. immigration system, even though it could conceivably affect my family. (Nefarious . . . Canadians!) I am pretty sure I have seen this movie before.

Here is how it goes: President Trump finds himself mired in something that he isn’t very good at (governing, administration, being president, etc.) and as he gets bored and begins to lose the political fight, he makes some kind of dramatic proposal, invariably via Twitter, and the politico-media world is, for a day or two or three, convulsed. Trump’s team convenes and tries to figure out some kind of at least barely plausible legal or constitutional rationale for what the president has proposed, and then begins developing the policy he already has announced. Somebody you know from Fox News will go on television and say this has been under careful consideration for months and that all the top people have been working around the clock on it, and other people you know from Fox News will pretend to believe that.

And then the drama starts to unravel. The big idea turns out to have a lot of qualifiers. In this case, that means things such as exempting “guest workers” from the purported ban, irritating my friend Mark Krikorian (of the Mayflower Krikorians) and other anti-immigration activists. Many other exemptions are under consideration as well, legal questions remain unresolved, and the Trump administration probably will end up putting six months of work into its 60-day moratorium, the principal effect of which, if it actually comes to pass, will be a larger backlog in green-card processing.

The story repeats itself: Trump announces a prohibition on travel from China in response to the coronavirus, and more than 40,000 people (and counting) fly here from China while the conversation changes to whether we call this virus from Wuhan the Wuhan virus. Trump demands a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” but his administration ends up continuing to hand out thousands of visas to nationals of the targeted countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc. Trump promised to deport every single illegal immigrant residing in the United States and, if necessary, to create a special federal force to do that. That hasn’t happened, though the estimates suggest that the number of illegals in the United States has declined — as it has been declining since 2005. Build the wall, and make Mexico pay for it, etc.

The situation of illegal immigrants is worth considering. I do not think it is very likely that some poor bum from Decatur ended up on Skid Row because he lost a spot in the computer-science Ph.D. program at Stanford to an Indian national and couldn’t endure the thought of going to Cornell instead. But some workers on the raggedy edge of solvency do compete head-to-head with illegals. Contrary to the popular impression, illegals are not concentrated in agriculture (only about 4 percent of illegals work in farming, and the vast majority of farm workers are not illegals) but instead are spread out through construction, hospitality, and services, especially in positions such as housekeepers, drywall installers, landscapers, dry cleaners, car washers, manicurists, and similar positions. But there is no industry or job in which illegals make up the majority of workers.

The neo-Malthusian view that there are not enough jobs to go around is mistaken (people are assets, not liabilities, and jobs are a means, not an end), but if you were to take that view seriously, then it would make a lot of sense to prioritize illegals — which is, of course, what Trump and other immigration hawks have been telling us they want to do. Illegals by some estimates make up as much as 5 percent of the total work force, and, to the extent that they compete with U.S. citizens in the labor market, they often are competing mostly with workers whose next-best option is not very good. In this, they are different many legal immigrants: The guy who was runner-up to Hyderabad-born Satya Nadella for the top job at Microsoft is probably still doing okay in life.

Only a couple of months ago, President Trump was saying he wants more immigrants — not just more, but radically more, immigrants in “the largest numbers ever.” In early April he proposed expanding the number of temporary workers admitted to the United States. “Reprehensible,” Mark Krikorian said. The administration has been all over the map when it comes to legal immigrants.

And illegals, too.

There are reasons to be concerned about illegal immigrants beyond the labor market, of course. Trump as a candidate made a big stink about illegal immigrants and violent crime, but his administration has not done a thing about that, and we still have illegals belonging to Central American gangs carrying out murders in American cities. Illegals are also themselves more vulnerable and likely to be victimized in various ways. And, of course, seeing to it that the laws on the books are actually enforced should be a norm. We write them down for a reason.

So why is the Trump administration sitting on its hands when it comes to illegals but assertive when it comes to legal immigrants and would-be legal immigrants?

The answer is: For the same reason the gun-grabbers concentrate their efforts on federally licensed firearms dealers and the people who do business with them — the nation’s least-criminal demographic — rather than prosecuting real-life straw-buyer cases or making sure that offenders do real time for weapons charges. It is pretty easy to police law-abiding people who are voluntarily submitting themselves to a legal process (whether that is immigration or buying a gun), filing paperwork, and undergoing background checks. Chasing actual lawbreakers around? That’s work.

Changing the law is work, too — signing an executive order is pretty easy.

But it is not much of a policy strategy. The Trump administration has not even managed to secure such elementary reforms as mandating the use of E-Verify or a similar system to cut off the main lure of illegal immigration at the source. Even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, President Trump could not be bothered to negotiate even a modest legislative package on his signature issue.

But he can write his name on an executive order that may inconvenience a few thousand people who are attempting to lawfully follow the legal immigration process for a few months. Some of them may wonder why they didn’t just go the illegal route, which might have been easier.

Maybe when the president is done with that, he can find a couple of grad students to bully. There’s an election coming up, after all.

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, this article originally claimed 430,000 people had traveled to the U.S. from China since travel restrictions were imposed. In fact, that is the number who have traveled to the U.S. from China since the outbreak began. The correct number is 40,000.

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