In the Trump era, good news rarely lasts a full 24-hour news cycle. The president’s well-received Tuesday speech has already been overshadowed by revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice during the presidential campaign with the Russian ambassador, despite the fact that Sessions testified otherwise under oath during his confirmation hearings. The AG has now recused himself from the ongoing investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and transition team and Russia. Nonetheless, it would be a shame to let this latest drip-drip of Trump team/Russian contacts drown out important policy pronouncements in the president’s speech. One that has gotten too little attention is the president’s prescription for immigration reform.
The day of the speech, President Trump met in an off-the-record discussion with major news anchors over lunch. According to sources who attended — and later confirmed by White House officials — the president raised the possibility of pursuing immigration reform that would eventually lead to legal status for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., as long as they have not committed serious crimes. Even more hopeful, the president said he thinks “dreamers,” whose parents brought them here illegally as children, should have a path to citizenship. The president then suggested to staff present that maybe the speech he was about to deliver that evening to Congress should include a reference to his thinking on this issue.
For those of us who waited eagerly to hear the president signal this important shift from an emphasis solely on border security and deportation, disappointment replaced hope. President Trump, it seems, isn’t calling the shots on this crucial issue. Staff didn’t rewrite the speech, and the president avoided the opportunity to make one of his frequent impromptu interjections. Who got to him? No doubt, aides scurried off to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s office or maybe to senior adviser Stephen Miller’s to spread the news of the president’s apostasy. On Fox News Channel’s “Special Report” just before the speech, radio talk show host and immigration provocateur Laura Ingraham announced she’d be making some phone calls to express her concern.
Instead of extending this hinted-at olive branch, Trump doubled down on his rhetoric about the ubiquity of vicious criminal aliens in our midst — even announcing a new office, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, within the Justice Department.
As he did throughout the campaign, Trump paraded out tragic families who lost children at the hands of undocumented immigrants, thus reinforcing a theme of his campaign that undocumented immigrants are a major source of violent crime in the U.S. In fact, immigrants, including those here illegally, are far less likely to commit crimes than the native-born, as borne out by every serious study of the topic.
Yes, real border enforcement might prevent every murder committed by a drug or gang leader in the country illegally, but that doesn’t make all undocumented immigrants potential murderers. These examples, as much as they pull on our heartstrings and raise outrage, are not the face of illegal immigration in the U.S.
President Trump also outlined his plans for legal immigration reform — which is the single most important thing we could do to deter illegal immigration. Unfortunately, the plan he laid out wouldn’t do the trick. I and other conservatives who favor reform of our outdated immigration laws have argued for years that we need a skills-based approach to immigration, which the president says he endorses. The problem is that his plan is too narrow.
We don’t just need high-skilled workers in the U.S.; we require those who meet the needs of employers who can’t find Americans willing to do jobs in some sectors. Most people currently here illegally are employed at jobs that most Americans shun. They are jobs in agriculture and ranching, meat processing, in-home child care and domestic work, restaurant kitchen work, janitorial services, lawn care and landscaping, painting, drywall construction and roofing — all of them relatively low-paid and performed in challenging conditions. Americans, especially the young, are too well-educated to want to perform stoop labor in the fields or clean out bedpans in nursing homes. At one time in our history, Americans did these jobs. But they don’t anymore because they’ve acquired skills that make such jobs a terrible fit.
The president is right that if we enact a new immigration law, we should ensure that those who are admitted don’t become burdens on our overextended welfare system. But this is achievable without shutting our doors to guest workers or even permanent residents who don’t have college degrees. If the president really wants to make our economy grow, he won’t cut back the legal flow of immigrants into the country; he’ll expand it. People, especially the risk takers who make up our immigrant population, are our greatest resource. This lesson shouldn’t be lost in the mix of breaking news at the White House.