A pol­icy mish­mash at the bor­der

Trump’s tough or­ders, edicts and declarations won’t fix the coun­try’s bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

From the ear­li­est days of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Don­ald Trump ex­pressed a vis­ceral dis­re­gard for im­mi­grants, no mat­ter their le­gal sta­tus. Mex­i­cans were “rapists,” Mus­lims should be banned and le­gal im­mi­gra­tion should be re­duced, he ar­gued, with guid­ance to come from a new (and as yet un­formed) im­mi­gra­tion com­mis­sion. Can­di­date Trump of­fered other pledges and ideas as well, some as hare­brained as the “no Mus­lims” stance but a few that, in dif­fer­ent hands, could lead to sen­si­ble pol­icy, such as re­vamp­ing spe­cial visa pro­grams for dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of work­ers.

But what has Trump de­liv­ered as pres­i­dent? A mish­mash of edicts and declarations that have un­set­tled im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, mainly by bring­ing about ramped-up ar­rests of peo­ple who, other than their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, have largely been law-abid­ing and pro­duc­tive res­i­dents. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has also threat­ened so-called sanctuary cities like Los An­ge­les with re­duced fed­eral aid if they don’t co­op­er­ate with Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents — a tac­tic of du­bi­ous le­gal­ity that threat­ens to un­der­cut lo­cal law en­force­ment. One of the fed­eral de­mands is par­tic­u­larly ob­nox­ious: ICE wants lo­cal jails to hold peo­ple for up to 48 hours with­out a war­rant or court or­der, a prac­tice that would seem to vi­o­late the Con­sti­tu­tion.

These dra­co­nian steps may be hav­ing some ef­fects, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive. Monthly ar­rests at the Mex­i­can bor­der are about half what they were the year be­fore, but there has also been a 17% in­crease in deaths as crossers seek more dan­ger­ous, less-pa­trolled routes. Per­haps that de­crease in cross­ings is a sil­ver lin­ing in this dark, roil­ing cloud of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy; tougher bor­der con­trol is im­por­tant for the na­tion, as is humane en­force­ment of im­mi­gra­tion laws. But ad­vo­cates and im­mi­gra­tion le­gal aid groups com­plain that the new reg­i­men of­ten sep­a­rates fam­i­lies and short-cuts con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions. And a fail­ure to prop­erly in­crease the ca­pac­ity of im­mi­gra­tion courts has ex­ac­er­bated an al­ready un­ac­cept­able back­log, with more than 610,000 cases now pend­ing, for an av­er­age of 672 days.

In sum, what the na­tion has seen so far from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been an in­choate ef­fort to tighten im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment, re­move peo­ple liv­ing here with­out per­mis­sion, and re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple en­ter­ing the coun­try il­le­gally. Some of those goals are de­fen­si­ble. Any coun­try has a right to de­ter­mine who gets to cross its borders, and who gets to re­set­tle there. But an im­mi­gra­tion pro­gram in­volves more than just run­ning to ground those here with­out per­mis­sion. This page has for years called on Congress to ad­dress the is­sue in a se­ri­ous man­ner and craft re­forms that would mod­ern­ize the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem while of­fer­ing a path to le­gal sta­tus for im­mi­grants with­out pa­pers but who have be­come in­te­gral and con­tribut­ing mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

In­stead, the na­tion gets blus­ter from the White House, crack­downs from ICE, more peo­ple stuffed into jails and de­ten­tion cen­ters over in­frac­tions of im­mi­gra­tion codes rather than crim­i­nal vi­o­la­tions, and com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in fear. Last week, Trump threw his weight be­hind a con­tro­ver­sial bill to base im­mi­gra­tion ap­provals on a merit sys­tem that “will fa­vor ap­pli­cants who can speak English, fi­nan­cially sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies, and demon­strate skills that will con­trib­ute to our econ­omy.” That ap­proach breaks with a decades-long pref­er­ence for those with fam­ily mem­bers al­ready in the United States.

Switch­ing to a merit sys­tem would, in ef­fect, cut le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in half, crit­ics say. That meshes with Trump’s pledge to re­duce le­gal im­mi­gra­tion to “his­toric norms.” But le­gal im­mi­gra­tion has see­sawed over the decades, mak­ing it hard to de­fine a norm. And cut­ting le­gal im­mi­gra­tion at a time when birth rates are at a his­toric low could hurt the fu­ture econ­omy and add stress to So­cial Se­cu­rity as the work­force ages. Again, any such pro­posal should be part of a broad over­haul.

Humane im­mi­gra­tion re­form should be in reach. Congress al­most got there in 2013 with the “Gang of Eight” Se­nate-passed re­form bill that, while im­per­fect, was far bet­ter than the sta­tus quo, and that of­fers a frame­work for an­other try. Im­mi­gra­tion re­form is one of the na­tion’s most press­ing prob­lems, and if Congress doesn’t find a fix, it will go down as yet an­other ex­am­ple of how the Repub­li­can Party might know how to cam­paign, but doesn’t know how to gov­ern.

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