Americans don’t build walls, they help knock them down. That’s what Ronald Reagan did when he exhorted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “Tear down this wall!” In 1989, East Berliners did just that, one of the proudest chapters in American history.
Today, President Trump has an opportunity to write another proud chapter, by permanently fixing our dysfunctional immigration system, something that no president or Congress has been able to do. To do so, he may have to abandon his promised wall. For most Americans, that’s a deal worth making.
Trump needs to craft a bargain with Congress that resolves the DACA mess that President Obama left behind, and that cuts down on illegal immigration once and for all. Here’s what he should propose:
1. Allow the 800,000 Dreamers included in the DACA program to become resident legal aliens. Agree that they will never become citizens; that is the penalty for their illegal entry. But, they would be allowed to stay and work in the country without fear of deportation and they would enjoy all the perks of citizenship (including entitlements programs like Medicare) except voting privileges. Agree that children born to Dreamers would become citizens.
2. At the same time, mandate the use of biometric screening for first-time visa applicants and make E-Verify mandatory nationwide. The former would help reduce the number of “overstays” illegally in the country while the latter would make it tougher for undocumented persons to work in the U.S. E-Verify is a free, government-provided program that enables employers to check the legal status of job applicants. Denying people here illegally an opportunity to earn a living would be the single biggest deterrent possible to future illegal immigration.
3. Get rid of birthright citizenship. The United States is one of only two developed countries in the world that still bestows citizenship on every person born on our nation’s soil. Having a child become a U.S. citizen is the greatest reward possible for someone who enters the country illegally. Such status is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in free education and benefits, not to mention the incalculable value of our country’s security and freedoms. Historically, there was bipartisan enthusiasm for dumping this program; even Democrat Harry Reid had proposed its termination.
4. Abandon the wall. These proposals would enrage hardliners on both sides of the immigration debate. That’s the nature of a deal. President Trump would have to make an Oval Office pitch to sell the country on this overhaul; here are some talking points that might help.
Point one is that securing our borders is indeed critical to the nation’s safety. Pro-immigration activists have drifted so far left that they oppose border enforcement, but most Americans are concerned about possible criminals or terrorists sneaking into the country. We pride ourselves on being a rule of law nation; it’s time we acted like one.
The wall represents more than a physical structure; it symbolizes a commitment to the rule of law and support for American workers. It signals an end to the permissiveness and claustrophobic political correctness of the Obama years.
Point two is that the country wants Dreamers to stay. About two-thirds of the country thinks protecting the DACA population from deportation is a priority, including almost 60 percent of Republicans. Sending these young adults “home” to a country they have never seen would be cruel, and we are not a cruel nation.
Point three is that reducing the allure of illegal entry is as important as securing our borders. The reason that past “one-time” amnesty programs have been followed by yet more illegal immigration is that we have never eliminated the enticements for coming into the country. Ditching birthright citizenship, which most European countries have done, and making sure that employers are required to check the legal status of employees through E-Verify, would go a long way towards that end. Though the rationale for birthright citizenship is contained in the Constitution, many legal scholars argue that the policy could be refined by Congress, just like gun rights.
Point four is that a 1,000-mile concrete wall is unworkable. Cato scholar Peter Bier, writing in the Libertarian magazine Reason, explains that more than two-thirds of borderland property is owned by groups other than the federal government, giving rise to significant legal challenges. There are other obstacles, including water rights, Native American objections, environmental issues and possible flooding that might result from a wall.
More important, Bier writes that an opaque wall would bar border patrol agents from seeing the bad guys; as a result many are opposed to it. A wall is also vulnerable to tunneling, scaling and other means of penetration. In short, with ramped-up security available today through the use of drones and other technology, the wall is simply not useful.
It is also expensive, with estimates of its cost running as high as $50 billion. That funding could better go to rolling out E-Verify and for expanded biometric screening for first-time visa applicants. We must deter illegal crossings, but it is also essential to prevent people from overstaying their visas. In 2016, according to a new report from Homeland Security, only an estimated 106,000 people managed to cross our southern border and enter the country undetected; more than 600,000 overstayed their visas.
Though many of the latter represent students and travelers who may not pose a threat to the country, remember that the 9/11 perpetrators from Saudi Arabia entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas.
“Build the Wall” became a central theme of Trump’s campaign. But the wall represents more than a physical structure; it symbolizes a commitment to the rule of law and support for American workers. It signals an end to the permissiveness and claustrophobic political correctness of the Obama years.
Polling shows that most Americans don’t want a wall, mainly because they doubt that it will make a difference.
We don’t need a wall; we need The Donald to do a deal.