Trump lumps all immigrants together at America's risk

Trump lumps all immigrants together at America's risk
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As we approach the first anniversary of the Trump presidency, a clear pattern emerges.

A Muslim immigrant and her U.S.-born husband kill civilians. Candidate Donald Trump's reaction was to propose a ban on all Muslim immigrants.

Some refugees commit crimes. His reaction is to bar all refugees for 120 days and drastically cut refugee admissions after that.

A diversity-visa immigrant commits a terrorist act. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE's reaction is to call for repealing the diversity immigrant program.

A man is admitted under the sibling preference. His accompanying child attempts a terrorist attack years later. President Trump's reaction is that all "chain immigration" should be banned.

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I wonder what his reaction will be if his "merit-based" program becomes law and a person admitted under that program commits a serious crime, perhaps years later. Would President Trump then call for the repeal of the entire "merit-based" program?

 

The absurdity of condemning an entire group because of the actions of a single member seems self-evident. If a left-handed immigrant commits a crime, no one would propose banning all left-handed immigrants. The real question is whether there is a causal link between the commission of the crime and either the substantive criteria or the processes of the particular program.

No such link exists. For one thing, everyone who seeks admission to the United States under any of these programs is rigorously vetted. I know this firsthand, from my experience as chief counsel of the federal agency that admits immigrants and refugees.

Refugees are vetted the most thoroughly of all — before they are allowed even to set foot in the United States.  No competent terrorist would choose the refugee program as the preferred strategy for gaining entry into our territory. Yet, ironically, of all the groups seeking permanent residence in the United States, it is refugees who have been hit the hardest.

President Trump slashed the refugee quota for fiscal year 2017 from the 110,000 allotment announced by President Obama to 45,000. He has since announced a similar 45,000 limit for the current fiscal year, 2018. That ceiling is the lowest in the 37-year history of the current refugee program. It comes at precisely the time when the number of displaced persons in the world is at a record level of 65 million. 

Portraying immigrants as criminals is nothing short of slanderous. Studies consistently show they have lower crime rates than native-born Americans. This should surprise no one. People immigrate for positive, constructive reasons — to reunite their families, to give their children the kinds of life opportunities that they could not dream of in their countries of origin, or for the very freedoms that Americans claim to cherish.

President Trump's effortless transition from an individual act to the condemnation of an entire large group requires yet another logical leap. The terrorist acts that President Trump has highlighted as illustrations of why whole programs should be repealed until vetting can be improved have typically been committed by individuals who became radicalized only after living here several years. In some cases they were admitted as children. Even perfect vetting would not have uncovered any reason to fear them.

Anti-immigrant groups are fond of pointing out that, if an individual who committed a crime had never been allowed to enter, the crime would not have occurred. And that is true. But that observation could be made about any admission program. No matter how strict the criteria or how rigorous the vetting, there is always some possibility, however remote, that a given individual will one day commit a crime. Short of banning all foreign nationals from ever setting foot on U.S. soil, there is no way to reduce the risk to zero.

As with any other policy decision, the risks have to be balanced against the benefits. And there are benefits in allowing U.S. citizens to reunite with their family members, benefits in attracting workers with needed skills, benefits in diversifying the immigrant stream, and benefits in fulfilling a moral responsibility to welcome our fair share of those who fear for their lives.

Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Stephen Legomsky is an emeritus law professor at Washington University, the former chief counsel of the federal immigration services agency, and the principal author of "Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy," which has been the required text for immigration courses at 185 law schools.