Better border policy is possible without a wall
Congress and President Trump must reject the political deal being suggested by some to trade an extension of DACA (the program for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children) for $5.6 billion to build a border wall; it does nothing to address our fundamental immigration issues. Such a deal will give policy makers an excuse to claim political victory while avoiding the difficult work of crafting the comprehensive solution that Americans are demanding.
The proposed DACA-for-wall deal, rejected last year, will only buy 215 miles of fencing along a 1,954 mile border, and does nothing to address the bigger issue — that most unauthorized workers arrive legally but then overstay their visas. The Democrats’ request to extend DACA fails to address the 9 million other unauthorized people living within our borders.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive solution is possible for both political parties. More than 80 percent of Americans are against mass deportation and believe those who arrived here illegally should have a path to legal status; more than 70 percent want stricter enforcement of immigration laws and more secure borders; and nearly all favor severe penalties for US employers who hire unauthorized immigrants.
In 2001, when border apprehensions were five times higher than today, immigration was not among Americans’ top 15 concerns, yet today it’s become our number one concern, even though the number of undocumented workers in the United States has been declining. This irrationality began in the 2016 election, when Trump promised to build “a great, great wall on our southern border” and instilled unnecessary fear by blaming Hillary Clinton for the deaths of “countless Americans.” The Clinton campaign played to its own base, telling crowds that Trump had called all Mexicans rapists — which he did not.
Americans must insist that policy makers put an end to heated rhetoric, and instead take four policy steps toward comprehensive reform.
First, we must provide legal status for unauthorized residents, using our existing green card program — a system that screens out criminals, requires language proficiency, requires residents to be employed, and subjects them to the same tax structure as everyone else. This is our only practical alternative, which also makes economic sense. In California alone, illegal immigrants have cost as much as $38 billion in lost tax revenue.
Furthermore, Americans have no appetite for mass deportation. The cost alone is prohibitive: deportation of someone who voluntarily surrenders costs taxpayers about $12,000, which means in an imaginary world where all 11 million unauthorized residents turned themselves in, it would still cost taxpayers $130 billion. These prohibitive economics, coupled with the sheer impracticality of rounding up 11 million people who do not want to be found, is why in 2016 the Republican Party platform rejected any language supporting mass deportation.
Second, because sectors like agriculture and construction depend on unauthorized labor, we’re forced to operate under a framework whereby the state, local, and federal governments look the other way while employers continue to break the law. By granting legal status and then utilizing the existing E-Verify system, we can eliminate the incentive to cross the border by enforcing punitive fines for violations by employers (including criminal charges against company officers) without disrupting our economy.
Third, both sides must erase “the wall” from their policy dictionary. Between 2010 and 2015, fences along our border were breached 9,287 times at an average cost to repair of $784 per breach, and in a good year we apprehend more than 350,000 people at our border. It was not until Trump’s imagined wall that Democrats became unwilling to fund physical barriers. Meanwhile, Republicans like Lindsey Graham have staked Trump’s presidency on the 215 miles of steel fencing he’s now requested, painting our president into a corner. Both sides need to quietly let “the wall” fade away, and return to a bipartisan, intelligent application of physical, manned, and electronic border security.
Finally, we must reposition Mexico as our collaborative ally. It’s cost-effective to work as a coordinated force, as we now do with Canada. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we negotiated policies allowing US Customs agents to work inside Canadian territory to stop the flow of unauthorized persons before they reached our border and positioned Canadian agents on US Coast Guard vessels so that pursuits by Customs agents didn’t halt at the Canadian border. These policies reduce the cost of enforcement and increase its efficacy.
These four steps are not expensive, can be funded largely in existing budgets, and line up with the instincts of most Americans. But they require our politicians to end the war of words and instead return to the less thrilling task of crafting good policy.
David Dodson is a resident of Wyoming and a former candidate for US Senate.