National Review, October 1, 2020
It’s beginning to look like Mexico isn’t going to be paying for the wall after all.
But it turns out that our neighbor to the south did something far more important: The Trump administration persuaded Mexico to work with us to reduce the number of bogus asylum claims by Central Americans, claims that were threatening to make the border fence irrelevant.
And that's just one of the immigration accomplishments the administration can point to. There have been plenty of stumbles, of course, and it won't be clear for some time whether the Trump presidency will represent a net plus or minus in the long run for the cause of controlling immigration. But a look back at the past four years shows quite a few salutary changes, usually made in the face of implacable, even maniacal, opposition.
First, the minus side of the ledger. Many of the administration's immigration mistakes have been a result of the president's own weaknesses: impulsiveness, lack of attention to detail, holding a grudge. For instance, the first major initiative, the ban on travelers from seven terror-prone nations (Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea, and Venezuela), was perfectly defensible. But the failure to prepare properly, by laying out a detailed legal defense and by coordinating with all those who'd be involved, resulted in a PR and administrative mess.
Likewise with the "zero tolerance" policy at the southern border, where illegal aliens bringing children with them as a stratagem to gain release into the U.S. were instead prosecuted for the federal crime of infiltrating the border. The resulting child-separation fiasco was amplified and distorted by a hostile media, but the original disarray could have been avoided with less haste and more planning.
Personnel mistakes have similarly been shaped by the president's temperament. As he left office, Harry Truman said of his successor, "He'll sit right here and he'll say, Do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating." Truman was wrong about the 34th president but not the 45th. Staffing would have been a problem for any outsider administration lacking a government-in-waiting of think-tankers, lobbyists, and consultants, but Trump's penchant for Apprentice-style management has created a situation where the top personnel in charge of immigration at the Department of Homeland Security, including the secretary himself, are all "acting" managers, not having been confirmed by the Senate.
And finally, some of the administration's shortcomings have been the result of bad choices: the president's firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the only high official with a clear vision for dealing with immigration; the nine-month delay in rescinding Obama's illegal DACA work-permit program, which telegraphed hesitancy and weakness; the president's curious ambivalence about E-Verify; and the decision to continue the made-up Optional Practical Training program, wherein some 200,000 foreign white-collar workers masquerade as students and are therefore not counted as participating in numerically capped, legitimate guest-worker programs, and are exempted (along with their employers) from paying payroll taxes. (The Optional Practical Training program has no basis in statute and is being challenged in court.)
But there is much on the plus side of the Trump administration's immigration policy. Whoever is paying for the wall, it is, in fact, getting built. The criticisms of some on the right that the Border Patrol is merely replacing existing barriers is misplaced: A 30-foot bollard fence where there used to be a four-foot vehicle barrier that your grandma could duck under (something I've done numerous times) is new construction. The importance of the new walls was underlined by the sight of busloads of Central Americans of all ages clambering over and under the low vehicle barriers, after having been delivered to their Mexican side by smugglers, and then turning themselves in to lodge meritless asylum claims.
As mentioned above, getting Mexico's help in regaining a modicum of control over asylum has been another big win for the administration — one that I did not think possible. Central Americans who sneak across the border, or walk up to a border crossing, and regurgitate the asylum verbiage their smugglers taught them are no longer released into the U.S. or even necessarily detained. Instead, Mexico has agreed to let us return them across the border to await their hearing dates in Mexican border towns, eliminating much of the incentive to file such claims in the first place.
Refugee resettlement is another Trump win. Resettlement, which began as a cause in the wake of the communist takeover of Indochina, has turned into a racket, with State Department contractors such as World Relief and Catholic Charities being paid by the head to find apartments for refugees, sign them up for welfare, and move on to the next batch to resettle. The administration has broken the rice bowl of the refugee industry by cutting the overall number admitted while at the same time increasing the share of those who genuinely warrant resettlement and giving state and local governments more say-so in the process, reflecting the intent of the 1980 Refugee Act.
Immigrant self-sufficiency is another area where the Trump administration has brought practice into line with legislative intent. The oldest principle of American immigration policy, dating to colonial times, is that only newcomers who can support themselves should be admitted. This was incorporated into federal law nearly a century and a half ago, when the U.S. barred the admission of any foreigner likely at any time to become a "public charge." The requirement was subsequently reiterated and tightened, most recently and notably in 1996, with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
But the Clinton administration, in writing the regulations based on those 1996 laws, deliberately subverted their intent by counting only cash benefits when calculating how much the U.S. provided to new immigrants. So, for the past 20 years, a prospective immigrant (while here in some nonimmigrant status) could have received, or could have been likely to receive in the future, food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid, and free school lunch and still be considered self-sufficient. The Trump administration has helped to rectify this absurd situation by issuing a new detailed rule expanding the kinds of welfare programs, and the amount of their use, that would lead to a prospective immigrant's rejection as a likely public charge.
American workers have also benefited from the administration's immigration moves, though not nearly as much as one might have expected, given the amount of pro-worker rhetoric during the 2016 campaign. We've seen an increase in worksite enforcement against illegal workers as well as their employers, though since enforcement had dropped to zero under Obama, there was nowhere to go but up. Most encouraging were the indictments earlier this year of managers at some of the chicken plants raided last year in Mississippi; they were charged with a variety of crimes, including wire fraud, identity theft, and harboring illegal aliens. More of that is vital.
White-collar workers have also made some gains thanks to Trump-administration actions. In 2016, Disney's former IT staffers who had been replaced by foreign-visa workers (and been required to train them before leaving) campaigned with Trump in Florida on the strength of his commitment to protect American workers. Once in office, the administration took a variety of steps to tighten up the lax issuance and oversight of, especially, H-1B visas, used mainly by tech firms. Most dramatically, earlier this year, the plight of the IT staff at the Tennessee Valley Authority came to the president's attention. Like those at Disney and literally hundreds of other firms, the TVA's computer staff was being fired and replaced by foreign workers with H-1Bs. The president called in TVA worker representatives, fired the chairman of the board (TVA is a government corporation), and told the board to roll back the staff firings. Only if Trump is reelected will we know whether this was a one-off campaign stunt or a genuine long-term commitment.
We've seen other positive moves as well under Trump: steps to limit birth tourism (pregnant foreigners' traveling to the U.S. to give birth here and thereby obtain American citizenship for the child); visa sanctions against so-called recalcitrant countries that refuse to accept their own citizens back when we try to deport them; and the refusal to sign two U.N. "global compacts" designed to gradually wrest control over immigration and refugee policy away from national governments.
It's not quite that we're tired of winning on immigration and begging the president, "Please, it's too much winning!" There's much left to do, and even the initiatives already underway have been fought at every step by a lawless "resistance" judiciary that, especially at the district-court level, has dispensed with all pretense of judicial impartiality.
But even when the Trump administration has overcome the obstruction of the courts, all these positive moves come with an asterisk. You'll notice that one important word has yet to appear in this article: "Congress." All the changes undertaken by this administration, as with the prior two, are the result of executive actions of various kinds. Such measures are much easier for a subsequent administration to reverse than are changes in the underlying laws. Unfortunately, our national legislature seems to have given up on legislating, becoming, in Gibbon's words about Rome's impotent senate, "a venerable but useless monument of antiquity on the Capitoline hill." Until that changes, immigration policy is likely to oscillate every four or eight years.