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President Trump has finally pinned himself down on what he wants from Congress on immigration reform, and it’s as bad as one might expect from someone who, despite his own immigrant roots (mother, grandfather), expresses antagonism toward immigrants — African, Mexican and Central American especially. But the biggest problem with the proposal that the administration unveiled Thursday is that it is not the comprehensive reform it needs to be.
Trump wants Congress to devote $25 billion to fund his silly wall on the border with Mexico, limit family-sponsored immigration to spouses and children of U.S. citizens and green-card holders and end the diversity lottery through which some 50,000 people can seek immigration visas each year. He also wants money for more border guards, despite an inspector general’s report last year that the administration couldn’t document “the operational need or deployment strategies” for the 15,000 additional immigration agents Trump wanted to hire. In return for all that, Trump says he’ll agree to let 1.8 million so-called Dreamers — people who have lived here illegally since childhood — have status and seek citizenship … in 10 to 12 years.
Congress should reject this deal out of hand. We are deeply sympathetic to the Dreamers and believe they should be afforded a (much faster) path to citizenship on their own merits, not as part of a ransom paid for policies rooted in economic misconceptions and xenophobia. On a fundamental level, the administration has not even bothered to make an argument for why it thinks the nation admits too many legal immigrants each year. This proposal swaps the Dreamers’ security for the aspirations of Trump administration nationalists to radically cut the flow of people into this country. Notably, the proposal doesn’t even address the great bulk of the 11 million people living in the U.S. without authorization. Trump’s proposal pretends they don’t exist or, even worse, that his draconian enforcement policies will somehow send them all packing.
The vast majority of those living here illegally are hard-working people seeking to make better lives for themselves and their families, and they have insinuated themselves deeply into the economy and their communities. More important, despite their lack of legal status, they are the emblems of what Americans like to think has made this country what it is: people coming here to nurture hopes for the future. We are, as a relatively young society, self-created from the rivers of migration that have flowed here since Europeans first began arriving. The Census bureau estimated five years ago that one-quarter of people living in the U.S. were immigrants or the children of immigrants. It is the confluence of all those cultures under the freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution that have made present-day America what it is.
Nevertheless, the federal government can and should deter illegal immigration as part of the process for determining who can live here. Every nation has the right and duty to make that determination, and smart and effective border security is important. But Trump’s wall is more symbolic than practical policy, so long as ladders can be built, tunnels dug and airplanes (or drones) flown. Besides, more and more of those living here without authorization arrive legally but then don’t leave. No wall addresses that. Trump’s proposal would “deter visa overstays with efficient removal,” as previous administrations have also pledged, though it offers no specifics on how he would achieve that.
Washington has two responsibilities here: to regulate future immigration in a way that advances the country’s interests, and to adopt smart and fair policies to resolve the status of the 11 million people already here in the shadows. Trump’s proposal would not do either. Instead, it would damage families, threaten the economy and tell the world that a nation that proudly built itself on the work and aspirations of immigrants has suddenly decided it wants to be another sort of country: cold-hearted, narrow and depressingly inward-looking. Lawmakers — and particularly Republicans — need to stop looking at immigrants, regardless of their legal status, as threats. As a nation whose birth rate has reached historic lows, our future economic vitality could very well rely on them.
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