Donald Trump’s roundup of undocumented immigrants is cruel and racist in its execution. His plan to build a wall along the Mexican border would be a massive waste of at least 14 billion taxpayer dollars.
But that doesn’t give Democrats a free pass to fudge on the issue of illegal immigration. They need to say, “We support a generous immigration program, but people without the proper papers cannot come here and take jobs.”
Such a policy would not turn this country into a xenophobic police state. It would make the U.S. more like Canada and Australia, two pleasant democracies that take in large numbers of newcomers but don’t tolerate illegal immigration.
Democrats don’t say they’re for illegal immigration. But many finesse the subject by instead expressing support for comprehensive immigration reform. As policy, that’s a sensible stance: Legalize most of the undocumented immigrants while ensuring enforcement of the law going forward.
But “comprehensive reform” is too indirect a term. Democrats must say outright that illegal immigration is not OK. It’s a problem.
A bipartisan bill for such reform passed the Senate but was killed in the House. It would have forced all employers to use the E-Verify system, a database that confirms the right of new hires to work here. The place to enforce the immigration laws is the employment office, not the Mexican border. Over 40 percent of unauthorized workers arrived legally (many by air) but then overstayed their visas.
Polls show Americans overwhelmingly open to immigration and greatly opposed to illegal immigration. Candidate Hillary Clinton did herself no favors by all but ignoring the difference.
Some diversity liberals join with cheap-labor conservatives in arguing (implausibly) that a massive influx of low-skilled workers hasn’t hurt the job prospects or pay of low-skilled American workers. They generally avoid the question of why the low-paying jobs that Americans allegedly don’t want to do are low-paying.
Interestingly, Bernie Sanders has drawn some liberal fire for discarding that nonsense. Citing the real unemployment numbers for recent high-school graduates — 33 percent for whites, 36 percent for Hispanics, 51 percent for African-Americans — Sanders told an interviewer: “You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers? Or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?”
The Trump approach, meanwhile, is long on spectacle, short on humanity. Here’s what else is wrong with it:
—The number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. peaked in 2007 and has been coming down ever since. So this is not a crisis that couldn’t be handled with the gentler comprehensive reform.
—More Mexicans have been leaving than are coming in. Trump’s wall folly seems like just another opportunity to beat up on brown people.
—Most unauthorized immigrants are now from countries other than Mexico. Asia currently accounts for the highest growth rate in unauthorized immigration.
—Hiring undocumented workers happens to be illegal, but Trump isn’t arresting the employers. (Trump himself got away with using an illegal workforce while building Trump Tower.)
But here are some truths that Democrats must heed:
Some 77 percent of Americans support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, according to the American Values Atlas. But a Harvard-Harris poll shows a huge majority (80 percent) opposed to sanctuary cities — municipalities that don’t let local police report undocumented immigrants they encounter to federal agents.
Clearly, the issue isn’t proimmigrant versus anti-immigrant. The issue is legal immigration versus illegal immigration.
The open borders position, Sanders explained, “says, essentially, there is no United States.” The public wants there to be a United States that protects its workers. Democrats should agree with that — and out loud.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.