The one great service of Donald Trump’s peregrinations on immigration policy is to have demonstrated how, in the end, there’s only one place to go.
You can rail for a year about politicians who opened our borders to Mexico’s wretched refuse. You can promise to deport said refuse. That may get you the Republican nomination. But eventually you must let it go.
Trump did that Wednesday in Phoenix. His “deportation task force” will be hunting … criminal aliens. Isn’t that the enforcement priority of President Obama, heretofore excoriated as the ultimate immigration patsy?
And what happens to noncriminal illegal immigrants? Their “appropriate disposition” will be considered “in several years when we have ended illegal immigration for good,” Trump said. Everyone knows that means they will be allowed to stay.
Trump’s retreat shows the one serious solution: enforcement and legalization. The required enforcement measures are well known – from a national E-Verify system that makes it almost impossible for illegal immigrants to work to intensified border patrol and high-tech tracking.
The one provision that, thanks to Trump, gets the most attention is a border wall. It’s hard to understand the opposition. It’s the most venerable, reliable way to keep people out. The triple fence outside San Diego led to a 90 percent reduction in infiltration.
The main objection is symbolic. Walls, we are told, denote prisons. But only if they keep people in, not keep outsiders out. Even holier-than-thou Europeans have started building border fences to stem the tide of refugees.
The immigration bargain’s other part is legalization. What do you do with the 11 million here? In theory, you could do nothing. The problem solves itself as illegal immigrants are replaced by their American-born children.
But formal legalization is a political necessity. It gets buy-in from Democrats, who have no interest in real border enforcement. Legalization is the quid pro quo. If they want to bring immigrants “out of the shadows,” they must endorse serious enforcement.
Such a grand bargain would command a vast national consensus. The American public will accept today’s illegal immigrants if it is convinced this will be the last such cohort.
This was the 1986 Reagan amnesty’s premise. It legalized almost 3 million immigrants. Because it never enforced the border, three became 11.
That’s why the Gang of Eight failed. They too got the sequencing wrong. The left insisted on legalization first. The Gang’s Republicans acquiesced because they figured, correctly, this was the best deal they could get under Democratic control.
The problem is legalization is essentially irreversible and would have gone into effect Day One. Enforcement was a mere promise.
Hence the GOP consensus, now that Trump has abandoned mass deportation: a heavy, detailed concentration on enforcement, leaving the question of what happens to those already here unspoken (Trump on Wednesday) or treated “case by case” (Trump last week).
The Trump detour into and retreat from deportation has proved salutary. Even he had to dismiss it with “we’re not looking to hurt people.”
But the ultimate national consensus goes one step further. Why leave legalization for some future discussion? Get it done. Once illegal immigration has been reduced to a trickle, the country will exercise its natural magnanimity and legalize.
So why not agree now? Say it and sign it. To get, you have to give. That’s the art of the deal, is it not?