President Trump and the Republican leadership have made clear that they have no intention of repairing our chaotic immigration system. Why not? Because illegal immigration is a problem that bothers most Americans. Fix it and all these politicians have are tax cuts for the rich, environmental degradation, soaring deficits and the loss of health care.
As a campaigner, Trump learned that when audience passion flagged, he could demand a wall with Mexico and his folks would jump to their feet. The week that America went into convulsions over Trump’s racist vulgarities about certain immigrants is a week we’ll never get back again. But it did cancel right-wing displeasure over his seemingly constructive comments on immigration reform a few days earlier.
“Is Trump a racist?” the TV commentators kept asking. He said racially disgusting things as a candidate and again as president. Asking whether he’s a racist deep in his cheesecloth soul is a pointless exercise.
Trump shows all appearances of “not playing with a full deck,” despite a doctor’s report of good cognitive health. It really doesn’t matter much whether he is crazy or just acts crazy.
But with his promises to protect working people breaking like fine crystal dropped from Trump Tower’s 26th floor, his policy deck has become quite thin. Illegal immigration remains one of the few potent cards he has to play. Why take it out of play by solving the problem?
This thinking did not begin with Trump.
In 2013, the U.S. Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform in a bipartisan vote. It would have legalized the status of most undocumented immigrants while putting teeth in enforcement going forward.
There were enough supportive Democrats and Republicans to pass the reform in the House, as well, but then-Speaker John Boehner didn’t put it up for a vote. Passage would have made some hotheads in his Republican caucus unhappy.
Some foes of comprehensive reform pointed to the 1986 immigration deal as the reason they couldn’t support that one. Their reason was baloney.
True, the law enacted in 1986 gave amnesty to millions without stopping the flow of more undocumented workers. Its big flaw was letting employers accept documents that merely “looked good” as ID for hiring someone. An explosion of fake Social Security cards and other documents greatly weakened the ability to enforce the ban on employing those here illegally.
The 2013 legislation would have closed that loophole. It would have required companies to use E-Verify, a secure database, to determine every job applicant’s right to work in the United States. That would have made all the difference in hiring practices and the ability of government to enforce the law.
Had the reform passed in 2013, America would now be in its fifth year of mandatory E-Verify. Instead, we have a law that still lets even poorly counterfeited documents become tickets to employment. The numbers on illegal immigration, falling since the Obama administration, would probably be smaller still had the 2013 reform passed.
And those brought here illegally as children would be enjoying a secure life as Americans. But Trump and many Republicans apparently see value in periodically threatening to deport these innocents. They’re useful as a political plaything.
As for Democrats, they would make a big mistake in underestimating the public’s hunger for an orderly immigration program. Polls show that Americans want a program based on respect—for the immigrants themselves and for the laws designed to protect U.S. workers from unfair competition.
If Democrats make clear that they are on board with both kinds of respect, they’ll be fine. Trump is grasping his one powerful card with both hands. Democrats should not help him.