By Loren Steffy
President Donald Trump recently called for extending amnesty to illegal immigrants. You may have missed it, because he didn’t use those words. He cloaked it in his trademark tough talk, making it sound as if he wants to crack down on illegal immigration. What he’s actually proposing would have the opposite effect.
Trump said he would send undocumented immigrants apprehended by the government to sanctuary cities and release them.
“We can give them an unlimited supply,” he said. Legally, it’s not clear that he can. Because there’s no official definition of a sanctuary city; it’s also not clear how such targets would be chosen. But let’s assume that the president follows through on his intent, and that he sends busloads of undocumented immigrants to cities such as Dallas, Houston and Austin.
This will accomplish exactly nothing in addressing the immigration crisis. It merely, once again, throws meaningful debate about reforming our broken immigration system onto the scrap heap of hollow political rhetoric.
Border Security Measures Are Working
It’s predicated on the misguided notion that border security is the only issue with immigration. The fact is that through both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past 20 years, we’ve made great strides on border security. Apprehensions for illegal border crossing, our best measure of enforcement, have fallen by more than 80 percent. Imagine if we had reduced murders, burglaries or sexual assault by 80 percent nationally.
Border security requires ongoing vigilance, of course, but the measures we have adopted during the past two decades are working. The crisis is not at the border. It’s in the interior, among the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country.
Most have jobs, many own homes, have American children, and in some cases, have started businesses that employ legal citizens. They pay property taxes and, depending on their employment situation, federal income taxes as well (even though they are ineligible for benefits such as Social Security).
Our economy benefits from their work. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office in the George W. Bush administration and now president of the American Action Forum, estimates that removing all of these workers from the economy would cut GDP by 6 percent — sparking a recession that would make 2009 look like an unplanned trip to Disney World.
De Facto Amnesty
The far right bristles at anything that further integrates the undocumented into our society, despite the desperate need for workers in industries such as construction and agriculture. They are still angry that Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the 1980s because their numbers rose after that.
So, instead, we accept a system of de facto amnesty. The undocumented are here, living and working among us, yet we pretend they are not.
Dispersing more of the undocumented into some of our largest cities without knowing who they are, where they’re going and what they’re doing doesn’t solve anything. It basically just accelerates the process that’s already in place, adding to the de facto amnesty that Republicans and Democrats alike have tolerated for years.
At the same time, it increases some of the most significant costs of illegal immigration — for police and fire protection, health care and education — that occur at the local level. This impact won’t be limited only to the cities Trump selects, because immigrants will move to where they can find work.
The president would not only expand our unwritten policy of de facto amnesty, he would increase the shared financial burden of our broken immigration system.
Empty Rhetoric Impedes Reform
De facto amnesty continues because reaping the benefits of immigrant labor is good for the economy. Trump himself likes to brag about the economy’s strength during his tenure. He conveniently ignores the role that undocumented immigrants play in it.
Figuring out what to do with those who are here illegally is far more complicated than talking tough about border security. And politicians don’t do complicated anymore. They prefer simple slogans like “build a wall” or “send them home.”
If Trump understood the true crisis of illegal immigration, if he saw it as anything other than a political prop, he might use his influence over the deport-or-nothing crowd to bring them closer to reality. Then we could discuss meaningful solutions.
Instead, he’s simply stoking the empty rhetoric that impedes reform and prevents our immigration system from working in the country’s best interest.
As he blusters on, the de facto amnesty he’s extending to the undocumented immigrants grows by the day.
Loren Steffy is an author, a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and executive producer of the Rational Middle of Immigration. This column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection