President-elect Donald Trump made immigration enforcement and reduced refugee admissions a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. This blog analyzes five of his more controversial positions on these issues, and argues that they should be reconsidered.
In the final presidential debate, Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton "wants to give amnesty, which is a disaster and very unfair to all the people that are waiting on line for many, many years." In fact, Clinton favored comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), "with a pathway to full and equal citizenship." CIR legislative proposals, one of which passed the US Senate in 2013, would reform outdated legal immigration laws, provide for rigorous enforcement of the law, and offer a long and difficult path to permanent legal status for select undocumented immigrants. They cannot fairly be characterized as amnesty programs. Moreover, these bills included provisions to ensure that beneficiaries could not jump ahead of those who had sought status through legal immigration channels.
Immigration status is a fluid condition, with tens of thousands of US residents gaining and losing status each year, as evidenced by the high percentage of new lawful permanent residents (LPRs) in any given year who were once undocumented. An estimated 4.4 million immigrants have been determined to qualify for a family-based visa, but languish in visa backlogs, some for decades. Perhaps another 14 to 15 percent are eligible for an immigration benefit or relief that would put them on a path to LPR status and citizenship, but do not know it or cannot afford the application and legal fees. In short, many undocumented immigrants are on their way to permanent legal status and none of them would benefit from US legal immigration laws at the expense of others.
Second, Donald Trump has vowed to build "an impenetrable physical wall on the southern border, on day one" and force Mexico to pay it. The United States has already erected 600 miles of walls and fencing along its nearly 2,000 mile land border with Mexico. To secure the rest of this border, it has put in place an elaborate system of ground sensors, drones, radar technologies, video surveillance, and more than 17,000 agents. Former US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff argues that fencing has value in border crossing areas near "vanishing" points (towns or highways), but in other places "makes no sense at all" and "doesn't add any value." Moreover, constructing a 2,000 mile barricade would pose immense engineering and environmental challenges and the result would be far from "impenetrable."
This proposal also assumes an out-of-control US-Mexico border, but the US undocumented population fell steadily between 2008 and 2014, border apprehensions are at one-fourth of their historic highs, and illegal entries have fallen to roughly one-tenth the level of a decade ago. Moreover, a growing percentage of illegal border crossers are fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle states of Central America. Additional fencing does not respond to refugee-producing conditions in these nations and will not prevent their nationals from crossing borders in search of protection. Finally, Mexico has repeatedly affirmed that it will not pay for a wall between nations that are, in fact, allies. Trump's enforcement plans would, however, bring a windfall to defense contractors and for-profit prisons. The stock of the two largest private prison corporations -- the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America --experienced a sharp jump the day after the election.
Third, President-elect Trump has said that his administration will remove or otherwise force out all 11 million US undocumented immigrants: "We're going to get them [all] out." Rather than upholding the rule of law, the deportation of 11 million persons would require draconian law enforcement tactics. This plan would also be disastrous to the US economy and tear apart millions of US families. One study has estimated that it would also cost anywhere between $400 and $600 billion in enforcement spending over 20 years. Undocumented workers constitute more than 5 percent of the US workforce overall, but this plan would shrink the US labor force even more (by 6.4 percent) and cause the GDP to shrink by $1.6 trillion over 20 years. It would particularly decimate industries like agriculture, construction, leisure and hospitality in which undocumented laborers are heavily concentrated.
The undocumented population includes a high and growing percentage of persons with long tenure and strong family and equitable ties to the United States, including 1.9 million who have lived in the US for 20 years or more, 6.6 million for 10 years or more. There are 3.8 million undocumented immigrants with at least one US citizen or LPR child. If the concern is that employers exploit undocumented immigrants to depress wages and degrade working conditions for all workers, a cleaner solution would be to strengthen and adequately enforce federal labor and workplace protection laws. A path to legal status for undocumented workers would also strengthen their ability to exercise their rights and responsibilities as workers.
Fourth, Trump has vowed to "immediately terminate President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties." The Obama administration created programs to defer the removal and grant temporary employment authorization to two populations of undocumented residents. The first, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), covers persons brought to the United States as children. The second, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), would have applied to persons with a US citizen or LPR child. The legal ground for these programs is the well-established authority of the executive branch to enforce US immigration laws, an authority that is, in fact, central to Trump's immigration plans. The Obama administration pointed out that it lacked the resources to remove all US undocumented immigrants and, thus, would exclude low-priority cases from the immediate threat of removal.
The DAPA program was blocked in court and never implemented. The original DACA program is available to undocumented persons who: arrived in the United States prior to age 16; have graduated from high school, or obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or were honorably discharged from the US Coast Guard or armed forces; have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors; and do not constitute a security or public safety threat. A 2016 analysis by the Center for Migration Studies found that potential DACA and DAPA beneficiaries were "deeply embedded" in US society. Eighty-five percent of the DACA-eligible had lived in the United States for more than 10 years, and 19 percent for more than 20 years, and 89 percent in the labor force were employed. The beneficiaries of the DACA program were brought to the United States by their parents at a young age and did not willfully break the law. They contribute substantially to their country and are Americans in every way except immigration status. The DACA program has allowed approximately 700,000 young immigrants to further their education and professional training, obtain more stable work opportunities, and increase their economic contributions to their families and communities. Why deport young Americans who are already part of the national fabric and who have such potential to serve the United States in the future?
Fifth, Trump's talking points on "defeating ISIS" identify the need to "[e]nsure that our security procedures and refugee policy takes into account the security of the American people." He has opposed the admission of Syrian and other refugees on national security grounds and may significantly reduce the refugee admission ceiling in FY 2017.
The US refugee resettlement program is the most secure of all US admission programs. National security and refugee protection are often seen as at odds, when in fact the two are complementary needs. Refugees contribute immensely to the US economy, military strength, diplomatic standing, and civic values. They serve as a living testimony to the nation's founding ideals. Moreover, refugee protection and security strategies largely align. Conflict prevention, peace-building, reconstruction, reconciliation initiatives, safe return home, humanitarian and development assistance to refugee host communities, and refugee integration advance both refugee protection and national security. Occasionally terrorists pose as refugees, but the clearest connection between terrorism and refugees is that the former creates the latter.
There were more than 65 million forcibly displaced persons in 2015, 21 million of them refugees, numbers which have almost certainly increased in the interim. The United States took a leadership role in responding to the crises in refugee protection after World War II and the Vietnam War. To resolve the current crisis will also require its leadership. However, it does not look as if this will be a priority for the Trump administration. If not, that will surely have negative security implications, as refugees languish indefinitely in camps. Moreover President-elect Trump has vowed that the United States would establish "great relationships" with "all nations." But forsaking the nation's obligation to do its fair share in helping refugees would undermine US standing with other nations.
In the presidential campaign, President-elect Trump regularly disavowed and denied his past statements and positions. Thus, it is not clear if President Trump will carry out his harshest, most counter-productive immigration and refugee proposals, although he will certainly face strong pressure to do so from his core supporters. These measures would be bitterly opposed and would certainly not unify the nation or "bind" its "wounds of division," as Trump promised on election night that he would work to do. In fact, they would divide millions of American families, deal an extreme blow to the US economy, and resemble the actions of a police state, not a liberal democracy committed to shared ideals. It is not too late to reconsider them.