Originally published by The Washington Post
They can be hard to spot — let alone take at face value — amid the usual spray of insults and bombast, but every now and then President Trump emits a very sensible idea.
Mr. Trump offered at least the appearance of such an idea when he strode into the White House briefing room late Wednesday and announced that he was open to a multiyear path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. His words sent his surprised staff scrambling and heartened Democrats who have been seeking a just solution for these young people. Mr. Trump then flew off to Davos, Switzerland, where he was to proclaim America’s reclaimed greatness to the assembled elite.
Was the president serious about adopting these young immigrants as real Americans, with full rights, including the right to vote? Just days ago he rejected any sort of deal that would allow them to stay in this country. Anyone counting on Mr. Trump’s constancy and good faith — and that of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who has promised a debate on immigration as part of renewed budget talks — ought to be wary. And be prepared to shell out billions of dollars for a border wall as the price of presidential compassion.
In the heat of the struggle over the fate of the Dreamers, the current targets of the heartless anti-immigration crowd, what has often been obscured is how the broader debate over immigration has ominously moved beyond those who are in America illegally to immigration as a whole.
Among hard-core Republican foes of immigration, aided and abetted in the White House by President Trump’s fiercely anti-immigration senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller, the goal is not only a crackdown on undocumented immigrants within the United States or a Great Wall along the Mexican border, but a sharply reduced number and a more restrictive profile of immigrants in general.
Though American immigration policy has been marked for much of the nation’s history by racism and injustice, a fundamental narrative has taken shape of the United States as a land shaped by waves of creative, hard-working immigrants, and as the great haven for “tempest-tossed” refugees from less fortunate lands.
The last two efforts to reform America’s tangled immigration policies, with bills in 2007 and 2013, were still based on a faith across party lines that foreigners coming to these shores — at least those coming legally — were good for America. The bills foundered over how to deal with undocumented immigrants, but various programs intended to bring in talented and diverse immigrants and to let legal immigrants bring in family members continued largely unchallenged.
Until Donald Trump.
While his public statements on immigration have been all over the place, his fundamental hostility to immigrants is obvious, from slogans such as “Buy American, Hire American” to his infamous racist and profane slur against poor Third World nations. In August, he gleefully endorsed a billsponsored by two anti-immigration Republican senators, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, that would reduce legal immigration by about a half, in large part by terminating the diversity lottery and curtailing family-based immigration, derisively called “chain-migration” in their camp. (As for poor, huddled masses, Mr. Miller dismissively noted in a television interview that Emma Lazarus’s celebrated sonnet was appended to the Statue of Liberty only later.)
There is no question that the millions of people who have crossed into the United States illegally, largely in the 1990s, represent a problem that demands a comprehensive solution. The anti-immigration backlash that Mr. Trump tapped is not always racist or xenophobic; to many Americans, mass illegal immigration represents a failure of government in one of its basic duties. It is equally clear that a solution must be a balance between offering many of the undocumented immigrants and their families — and the Dreamers — a way to legalize their presence, and increasing border security.
None of that changes the fact that immigrants, legal and illegal, supply, and have always supplied, America with the talents, skills, diversity and dreams that have made it what it is. The fact that Silicon Valley has so many foreign-born workers is not evidence of native-born Americans crowded out of work, but of America’s ability to tap talent around the world. And with the U.S. birthrate sagging and baby boomers retiring, immigrant labor will be critical to sustain economic growth. Base nativism must not be allowed to undermine the American dream, or its future.