Of all the issues that aroused the enthusiasm of Donald Trump voters during the campaign, none carried greater emotional weight than immigration. Demonizing immigrants and references to a border wall and mass deportation never failed to elicit a full-throated roar of approval from his supporters.
Now that he’s President-elect Trump, he’s singing a different tune, and that’s a good thing.
▪ Mass deportation? Let’s just get rid of the known criminals among the larger group of undocumented immigrants, Mr. Trump now says. This is a bow to reality, and happens to coincide with the policy of President Obama, whom immigrant advocates labeled “deporter-in-chief.”
By some informed estimates, there are 820,000 people living in the country illegally who have criminal convictions; of these, 300,000 have a felony conviction. That is a large number, but this idea makes more sense, and is less likely to create a political uproar, than taking on the impossible task of trying to deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants within our borders.
Another obstacle to Mr. Trump’s plan is the chaos of the immigration court system. Many of the deportations, perhaps hundreds of thousands, would have to be approved by immigration judges. But immigration courts are foundering. The national backlog consists of more than 500,000 cases, yet Congress has authorized only 300 positions for immigration judges. Even Mr. Trump’s down-sized deportation plan would be slowed to a crawl.
▪ The wall? Could be just a fence, maybe, Mr. Trump said after the election, perhaps realizing that the cost would be ridiculously expensive, some $40 billion by one published estimate.
▪ Reversing Obama. Mr. Trump vowed to reverse all of the president’s executive orders, including the one that allowed some 740,000 individuals to benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that President Obama implemented in 2012 by executive action. It grants those who arrived here before the age of 16, and who meet several other requirements, temporary amnesty from deportation and eligibility to work.
Last week, Mr. Trump got a letter from 18 big-city mayors imploring him not to reverse DACA nor to deport those who should stay here. It’s too bad that the signers didn’t include either Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who says he didn’t know about it, or Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was waiting for a policy briefing on the letter.
And on Friday, prominent business leaders also began lining up to pressure Mr. Trump to abandon hard-line immigration policies. As a result, he has adopted a softer tone on DACA and says he “wants to work something out” with those it covers.
These are welcome signs that winning the election has had a sobering effect on his immigration views. Wisely, he appears to be stepping back from extreme positions, but that’s not enough to resolve the immigration mess. He needs a detailed plan if he wants a lasting solution.
The good news is that such a plan already exists. It’s called comprehensive immigration reform. The bad news is that it never got any traction under Mr. Obama thanks to a solid wall of opposition from Republicans.
Mr. Trump could have the last laugh on his critics and score a major victory for his own presidency if he were to make comprehensive reform his own cause and thus solve the immigration problem once and for all.