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 legal status, have largely been law-abiding and productive residents. The administration has also threatened so-called sanctuary cities like Los Angeles with reduced federal funding 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 constitutional protections.
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. This 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 it doesn't know how to govern.