Real Immigration Reform is Necessary and Possible. It Doesn't Look Like This.

When Republicans turned to Donald Trump to represent them in the 2016 presidential election, much of the country responded with shock and dismay to the party’s apparent shift in its attitude towards immigration. Under former President Bush, the GOP had a much more merciful and much less reactionary approach to immigration than the one Trump espoused during his campaign. Though they never managed to cobble together a comprehensive reform bill that could muster enough bipartisan support to make it to the president’s desk, many Bush-era Republican leaders were supportive of a pathway to legal status for large swaths of the unauthorized immigrant population and the creation of a new visa program for seasonal workers, both of which were core components of a 2006 reform package backed by Republican Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Lindsey Graham, Arlen Specter, Sam Brownback, and even Mitch McConnell. President Bush himself backed the bill as well, and it passed the Senate with the support of 23 Republicans in total. Republicans in the House, however, were more concerned with cracking down on illegal immigration and tightening up the border. The two chambers were unable to reconcile their differences before the end of the 109th Congress, and the reform bill ultimately died a quiet death. 

Had George W. Bush run for president on the same immigration platform that Trump campaigned on in 2016, it’s unlikely he would have survived beyond the Super Tuesday. But over the course of the Bush and Obama presidencies, that very same immigration platform metamorphosed into one of Trump’s strongest selling points. His subsequent ascendancy to the White House made it clear that the GOP had at least temporarily—and perhaps even permanently—abandoned any hope of finding a middle ground with Democrats on this issue.

At best, this rightward turn indicated a collective desire by Trump-supporting Republicans to impose an exceedingly strict immigration diet on the nation for the purposes of desaturating immigrant-dominated job markets and tightening up America’s borders. At worst, it signaled a reactionary, nativist uprising within a political party that has been struggling to adapt to the changing demographic reality within the United States. Your guess as to which of those two perceptions is the more accurate one likely depends on which side of the political aisle you stand. 

Either way, the GOP’s embrace of President Trump’s immigration platform, surprising as it may it have appeared at first glance, was entirely predictable. Long before the rise of Donald Trump, progressives had begun gently towing the Democratic Party further from the center on the immigration issue. And as Peter Beinart explained in a 2017 piece for The Atlantic, Democratic leaders were happy to go along with it once they started to recognize how progressive immigration policies could potentially be parlayed into a decades-long electoral advantage over their Republican rivals. The GOP took notice and returned fire with the election of an immigration hardliner who exhibited absolutely no fear in the face of progressive outrage. And two and a half years later, the results speak for themselves.

Or do they? 

We’ve all seen the pictures of overcrowded immigration detention centers. We’ve read about the children separated from their families. We’ve heard the stories about asylum seekers being turned away at ports of entry along the southern border. What we have not seen, read, or heard about, however, is the Trump administration’s strategy for dealing with the root causes of illegal immigration, and that’s because he does not intend to address them.

Instead of aggressively pursuing employers who bait unauthorized immigrants into the country with the promise of a steady paycheck, the administration has continued to pound the table for a border wall while simultaneously engaging in headline-generating immigration raids. Neither of these enforcement mechanisms will actually solve the problem, however. The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants didn’t even cross the southern border to get here, and there’s no conceivable way to deport all of the estimated 10-12 million unauthorized immigrants who are already in the country. If Trump was genuinely interested in solving the problem of illegal immigration, and if he hoped to do so in a humane manner, he would shift his focus to the businesses and corporations that have long been the catalysts for illegal immigration.

Senator Mitt Romney understood this when he ran for president in 2012. His immigration plan relied heavily on a combination of new policies and procedures that he argued would make it immensely difficult for unauthorized immigrants to find jobs at American companies. One of the tools he intended to use was E-Verify, an online system that allows employers to determine whether a potential hire is legally permitted to work in the United States. As it stands, most states haven’t passed laws requiring both public and private employers to participate in E-Verify. 

Unfortunately, E-Verify is far from perfect. Unauthorized immigrants often manage to circumvent it with the use of stolen social security numbers and falsified documents, which is a systemic blind spot that will have to be addressed before E-Verify’s true potential as a deterrent to illegal immigration can be fully realized. For his part, though, Trump hasn’t warmed up to that idea, which is hardly a surprise considering that he himself has benefitted from the employment of unauthorized immigrants. 

This past May, the Washington Post published a piece explaining how most of Trump’s golf courses didn’t even utilize E-Verify until the pressure to do so became too great to ignore. The piece goes on to talk about how dozens of unauthorized workers were subsequently let go from their jobs, forcing the clubs “to offer higher salaries for some manual labor jobs and rely more heavily on college-age Americans.”

That is, of course, the entire point of E-Verify — to ensure that American workers get the first crack at American jobs by preventing businesses from exploiting cheap immigrant labor. Yet while President Trump has previously expressed support for an E-Verify mandate, he’s also conveyed his concern that a mandatory E-Verify program could prove too burdensome for some employers, citing his own previous struggle with finding enough legal workers to complete construction of the Trump International Hotel in Washington. 

“The one problem is E-Verify is so tough that in some cases, like farmers, they’re not — they’re not equipped for E-Verify,” he told Fox News in an interview last May. “I mean I’d say that’s against Republicans. A lot of the Republicans say you go through an E-Verify. I used it when I built the hotel down the road on Pennsylvania Avenue. I use a very strong E-Verify system. And we would go through 28 people – 29, 30 people before we found one that qualified.”

To be fair, he’s not entirely wrong. We absolutely do need an immigration plan that provides opportunities to foreign workers who are ready and willing to take on the jobs that American employers routinely struggle to fill. The obvious solution would, of course, be a comprehensive immigration reform plan that includes an upgraded and mandatory E-Verify system along with an expansive worker visa program that would take into account the interests of all parties involved and restore some degree of order to the nation’s immigration system. But that hasn’t happened under Trump, and it probably never will. His policies are designed to make it appear as if he is doing something substantial on immigration, but the only thing he has managed to accomplish is to create a very convincing optical illusion. 

If it’s ever constructed, Trump’s proposed border wall may make a measurable dent in illegal border crossings, but most unauthorized immigrants don’t come here by crossing our borders illegally; they come here on visas and refuse to leave when those visas expire. And as surprising as it may be to Trump’s supporters, the Obama administration was actually more aggressive in prosecuting employers who hire unauthorized immigrants than the Trump administration has been thus far. It should also be noted that many of the policies and procedures that Trump has implemented were enacted through executive power, meaning that they can — and almost certainly will — be wiped away with a few strokes of his successor’s pen. That means, for instance, that the increased rate of H-1B visa application rejections under Trump will very likely return to pre-Trump levels once a Democrat retakes the White House.

In other words, nearly everything that Trump has accomplished on immigration will prove fleeting and inconsequential in the long term. The most cynical interpretation of the situation is that Trump is trying to have his cake and eat it too — that he’s doing what he must to preserve his popularity among his fellow immigration hardliners while simultaneously shielding his corporate friends and associates from the consequences of their exploitative and illegal behaviors. The more generous interpretation is that he just doesn’t understand what meaningful reform really looks like, and that his ignorance on this issue has inspired him to take actions that are at once unnecessarily harsh and largely superficial. 

No matter the reason for it, it’s become all too clear that, when it comes to immigration, the Trump presidency is a status quo presidency. He hasn’t done much to address the underlying causes of illegal immigration, and he probably never will. So long as he can maintain his reputation as the hardliner-in-chief without having to do the hard work of stirring up bipartisan support for meaningful action, there really isn’t any incentive for him to ever change course.

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