Donald Trump's Immigration Card Is Perilously Wrong

By Michael Niren

Donald Trump's early rise in the polls as the GOP frontrunner in the presidential primaries should come as no surprise. He came out swinging and seized the narrative; telling voters what they already knew: that Washington is run by incompetents. Trump understood that frustration was at a boiling point.

As the marketer that he is, Trump told his audience that the item up for bid was a wall between the Mexican/U.S.border. He would build it, have Mexico pay for it and that would "make America great again". Irresistible. Predictably, Trump's poll numbers rose and rose.

But what was he really selling? Immigration reform isn't new in American politics. On both sides of the isle, Democrats and Republicans have routinely made immigration a keystone issue during and after elections.

In 1986, Ronald Regan passed comprehensive immigration reform under the Immigration Reform and Control Act which like most measures, was an attempt to balance the benefits of immigration while managing the problem of illegal immigration. So Reagan did just that by granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants under certain conditions while tightening up controls to discourage future illegal immigration.

Similarly, Bill Clinton passed a sweeping immigration bill in 1996 known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The bill penalized visa overstays, thus imposing automatic bars on entry. It also gave border officials new tools to expedite removals of aliens on the spot, with little regard for due process. But to soften the blow of stringent new rules, provisions were enacted to grant relief to illegals, albeit under stricter conditions.

Virtually all immigration reform no matter who occupies the White House typically contains these "sugar and spice" provisions telling the American people in essence that we have compassion, but we aren't pushovers either. Overall, such measures have been well tolerated.

Enter Trump. His crash of the 2016 GOP Presidential race was unequivocally anti-immigration. No sweetener in his coffee. He boldly told voters that "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."

Trump later outlined his immigration plan and posted it on his website. It put illegals on notice. His plan included the tripling of ICE officers, while criminalizing overstays that would subject undocumented immigrants to more aggressive federal detention and deportation. And if that weren't enough, his proposals also targeted legal immigration by threatening to increase H-1B visa prevailing wage levels for foreign workers.

H-1B visas are non-immigrant work visas for specialty workers. Getting approved for an H-1B involves U.S employers navigating bureaucratic red tape just for the privilege of hiring a foreign worker. Ask any company in Silicon Valley how much of their recruitment budget is allocated to visa processing.

Trump's immigration reform not only targets illegals, but also legal immigration in the name of allegedly "protecting" American workers. Trump's message on immigration is clear. It's a threat to the U.S.

Yet to those in the know, measures supported by Trump don't make America "great"; they are economically harmful as they reduce the quality of labor in the U.S., thus shrinking the amount of investment flowing into the states in pursuit of talent. Trump's proposal to increase H-1B prevailing wages will make an already onerous process even more perilous for both U.S. employers and their overseas candidates, resulting in less productivity.

Naturally and if by instinct, the other GOP contenders registered their disapproval as the tradition of pushing for more balanced immigration policies was summarily broken. But to the shock of pundits and of Trump's opponents, many bought into his take-no-prisoners message. A dumbfounded GOP was left with a choice: Go with the wall or try to scale it.

Jeb Bush soon learned that the latter approach was no longer marketable. Predictably, he tried to walk the middle road best captured by his controversial, pre-primary statement in April 2014 at a town hall event claiming that "Yes, they [undocumented immigrants] broke the law, but it's not a felony. It's an act of love, it's an act of commitment to your families"

Jeb then doubled down in August 2015 while speaking to reporters during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, TX where he dismissed Trump's immigration proposal, stating that it is "unrealistic" and would "violate people's civil liberties".

But the public seemingly wasn't in the mood for hedging on immigration, and soon the other candidates were all over Trump's wall. At the Fox News debate in August, when the candidates were asked about immigration reform, they unabashedly touted the virtues of building a wall. Trump smiled, knowing it was he who set the immigration narrative. The viewers knew it too. The same story at the CNN debate.

But is Trump's hard line really the best play? Do Americans believe that Mexico is the immigration devil and that a wall and mass deportation are the answer? You would think so given Trump's current lead in the polls.

But a recent Pew Poll illustrates what most Americans really think. According to the survey, 72% believe that undocumented immigrants should have the right to stay under certain conditions. While other concerns about immigration were expressed, Americans know what Trump doesn't seem to: that this country was and continues to be built on immigration.

It is also clear that while some immigrants, like citizens themselves, commit crimes, most of them come to our shores with hopes and dreams to help make America great. An inconvenient truth lost in all the rhetoric and noise is that moving to a new country is a major life decision wrought with uncertainty and risk. Imagine uprooting your family, leaving your job, your culture to start all over with no guarantee of success? Yet these are the decisions immigrants make every day and in the thousands. Common sense and the facts clearly support the proposition that most immigrants come to work, to prosper and to win.

The evidence? Again, just look to Silicon Valley and observe how the immigration effect has benefited all of us. But even more compelling is what's in your own backyard. How many immigrants do we encounter everyday who work in retail, medicine, law and other industries? Historically and presently, the countless economic and social advances that immigration has brought dwarfs any negative impact overblown in today's narrative.

Given the apparently easy sell on the benefits of immigrants and immigration already accepted by Americans, you would think that the GOP candidates would seize the moment. Instead, like sheep, they have aligned with Trump and with his narrative, thus helping him make his case. The problem, of course, is that to win the general election, the immigrant-as-scapegoat message likely won't resonate with the wider voting public who know better. What Trump's opponents should consider then is to abandon the middle ground and to boldly emphasize the positive case for immigration with the same unapologetic zeal that Trump has made against it.

Despite very real national security concerns, Americans would nevertheless be receptive to a strong voice that confirms their long held belief in an open, welcoming society that includes immigration. The GOP should remind voters of Reagan's "shining city upon a hill"; a hill that was built by immigrants.

Michael Niren covers the intersection of immigration and politics.  He's an immigration lawyer and founder of  

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