Why Building the Wall Should Not Be Trump’s No. 1 Immigration Priority

Mark Krikorian, Nation Review, December 19, 2016

Ironically, Donald Trump’s marquee immigration proposal — a border wall, which Mexico will pay for — is the part of his immigration platform least likely to make much difference. This is not to say it’s infeasible or even ill advised. Only about one-third of the border with Mexico has any kind of fencing, and half of that consists merely of low-rise vehicle barriers intended to stop truck traffic; anyone can easily climb over or under them (as I myself have done on many occasions). And the president doesn’t need further authorization from Congress to build a physical barrier, although he would eventually need additional funding.

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All that said, the problem at the border isn’t so much physical as political. While incremental improvements are needed in infrastructure, technology, and personnel, the Obama administration has rendered the long buildup at the border through the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations moot by simply waving illegal aliens across and letting them stay.

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The other immigration initiative on the incoming administration’s to-do list that has drawn a lot of attention is Trump’s pledge to deport 2 to 3 million criminal aliens. This represented a move toward realism, away from his comments early in the campaign that all illegal aliens would have to be deported.

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But deporting criminal aliens neglected under President Obama’s laxity is an essential part of such management. And the figure of 3 million is probably an undercount: Immigration and Customs Enforcement itself estimated several years ago that there were 1.9 million deportable aliens with criminal convictions. Add to that close to a million people who were ordered deported but absconded, plus other alien criminals who weren’t convicted only because they jumped bail or were released by sanctuary cities, and there will be plenty to do with the enforcement resources now underutilized because of the huge decline in interior deportations under Obama.

There are two parts of any effective immigration-enforcement plan that are more important than either the Mexican border or criminal-alien removals: turning off the jobs magnet and ensuring that lawful foreign visitors actually go home when their authorized time is up. Both are included in the president-elect’s enforcement outline, but they need more attention — and administrative focus — than they have received.

Making legal status a labor standard, through rules such as those that provide overtime pay and prohibit employing child labor, is the most important single thing that can be done to reduce the incentive to immigrate illegally. Practically, that means requiring use of the free online system E-Verify for all new hires. E-Verify enables employers to check whether the ID information provided by their new hire is authentic. It is now voluntary; about half of last year’s new hires were screened through E-Verify. Making it mandatory will require an act of Congress.

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The second enforcement initiative, policing visas and the visitors who use them, isn’t the arcane issue some may think. The old rule of thumb used to be that 60 percent of the illegal population snuck across the border and 40 percent overstayed visas, making visa-tracking important but secondary. New research from the Center for Migration Studies (no relation to my Center for Immigration Studies) found the reverse — now close to 60 percent of the 1,000 new illegal aliens settling in the U.S. each day are believed to be visa overstayers.

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If you think of the visa process as a “decision factory,” the decisions that result in overstays are analogous to products with manufacturing defects. And the defect rate is quite high; a long-awaited DHS report released in January found that more than half a million foreigners didn’t leave when they were supposed to in 2015, and even using DHS’s deceptive math (it inflated the denominator), that represents a defect rate of 10,000 parts per million, or 1 percent, which would be unacceptably high in any manufacturing process.

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A comprehensive immigration-enforcement program would have many additional elements: restarting routine enforcement at the workplace and elsewhere by canceling Obama’s unilateral edicts that gut the law; reining in sanctuary cities; pressuring recalcitrant countries to take back their own citizens when deported; ending tax subsidies that effectively pay illegal aliens to stay here; and more.

But as important as those measures are, two tasks must take pride of place: denying illegals jobs and making sure visitors go home. Without significant progress on those two fronts, we cannot prevent illegal immigration.

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