President Trump told Senate Democrats that he was open to the idea of doing comprehensive immigration reform last week at a meeting at the White House.
That’s a good thing, and Democrats should take him up on it.
First, his Justice Department did little to enforce the laws on the books, until it became clear that the situation was getting out of hand.
He vaguely promised citizenship to those who were in the country illegally, which encouraged a whole generation of migrants from Central America to bull rush to the border in hopes to get a chance to become citizens themselves.
Mr. Obama, of course, had the chance to reform the system in his first two years of his term, but he and his Democratic allies chose to focus on climate change and healthcare reform. An immigration proposal never made it to the floor in Nancy Pelosi’s short tenure as Speaker.
This issue has been festering for the better part of a decade. More and more people overstay their visas or sneak through our southern border, lured here by the promise of jobs and too scared to go back home for fear that they will never get a chance to get back here.
Estimates range from 10 to 15 million illegal immigrants in this country. That’s a lot of people for a country our size to absorb, a lot of people who are part of an underground economy that drives down wages and who are exploited by unscrupulous employers.
Candidate Trump promised to enforce our immigration laws, and that proved to be a powerful campaign promise that helped to propel him to the White House.
Fixing our broken immigration system is not easy to do piece by piece.
If you want to entice the Chamber of Commerce into accepting an E-verify system, you need to help them get access to more potential employees. That means at least legalization for those who are undocumented and perhaps an expansion of the work visa program.
If you are going to do that for the Chamber, then you need to do something for the agriculture community. That usually means more visas for migrant workers who are essential for the farm economy.
But you can’t do something for the business sector without doing something for organized labor. You need Democratic votes, and those votes are controlled by the labor movement. That means you must do something to protect the rights of immigrants, and that usually comes with some sort of legalization and a pathway to citizenship.
Interior enforcement is always a demand of conservative Republicans. They hate the idea of “sanctuary cities” and they want local police departments to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to expel lawbreakers. But you talk to sheriffs whose charge it is to keep their communities safe and they don’t want to do ICE’s work for them, because they have enough on their plate and it is hard enough to build trust among new immigrants. There’s a compromise in there somewhere that needs to be found, perhaps by giving the bulk of the undocumented documents and by kicking the gang-bangers out of the country.
The final piece comes with the so-called “Dreamers,” the children who came with their undocumented parents and who have grown up in this country, knowing no other place to live. President Trump has promised to take care of them, but nobody knows what that means exactly.
Pretty soon, you get back to a comprehensive approach to reform.
President Trump can build a wall and he can issue executive orders. And he can enforce the current laws, which is causing panic in the immigrant community.
He can do all of that because he won the presidential election, fair and square, and because President Obama failed to fix our broken immigration system in his eight years in office.
Democrats can complain all they want about Mr. Trump and his enforcement actions. But if they truly want to help the undocumented, they better come to the table and start negotiating with Republicans for a long-term fix.
Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).