What will Trump do about the 11 million illegal immigrants?

On August 31, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE delivered the most detailed policy speech on immigration by a candidate for national office. Despite spending 70 minutes addressing one of the most important issues on voters’ minds, many pundits found the speech lacking because it didn’t answer their most important question: What do we do about the 11 million illegal aliens living here?


While that may be the big question for professional talking heads, it’s hardly the definitive question for most Americans. To most Americans, the crucial question in the immigration debate is one that the opinion oligarchs have never even considered: How do we get immigration to serve some clear, identifiable public interest?



In sharp contrast to how the immigration debate has played out over the past decade,Trump acknowledged the American people as the primary stakeholders in immigration policy. Immigration reform, he asserted, must begin from the premise that the policy exists to advance “the wellbeing of the American people,” and “protect all aspects of American life.”


From that starting point, he laid out a plan for how immigration policies should serve public interest objectives. Our legal immigration system should admit people who are most likely to succeed and contribute economically, and successfully assimilate into American society.

We should deter people from settling here illegally by removing incentives, like access to jobs, non-essential public services and benefits, and the possibility of gaining legal status in this country. And, for those who are not deterred, we should exercise reasonable enforcement at our borders and in the interior of the country. 

Trump did not address the question of what to do about the people who persist in violating our immigration laws because that is the wrong place to start the analysis. We don’t undertake tax reform by making the people who evade taxes the focus of our efforts. The focus of tax reform is, ostensibly, to make the system fairer and less onerous on those who obey the law, while ensuring adequate revenue for the Treasury.


We do our best to ensure compliance (even when enforcement results in innocent family members suffering hardship) and accept the reality that there will always be people who get away without paying what they owe. One thing we certainly do not do is reward people for violating our tax laws.


There is no rational reason why we should approach immigration reform from the standpoint of the people who have broken our laws. In short, what to do about the people who are living here illegally is more the problem of the people who are living here illegally than it is ours.


It is reasonable to assume that if we remove the benefits and incentives for breaking our laws and increase the likelihood of detection and removal, many (though certainly not all) will become discouraged and, over time, leave on their own.


Even with increased deterrence and enforcement, some will still choose to remain here and “live in the shadows.” But that’s their choice. It is not up to the American people or our government to bring them out of the shadows they have put themselves in.


The recent hack of documents underscore that the polarization in today’s immigration debate has been brought about by interests who seek to advance their priorities in immigration amnesty around an effort to gain electoral advantage over time. Not only has this inflamed passion and minimized the primacy of the public interest, it has corrupted the proper balance in how we define the public interest in immigration policy.


The centerpiece of immigration reform is making the policy work for the American people. Immigration reform is about establishing a merit system for selecting people to come to this country and setting limits on the number of people we admit. The rest is about enforcing the rules. And in no other area of public policy are the concerns of the cheaters seen as valid, much less paramount.


The public has its priorities straight. True immigration reform is not about what we should do for the people who break our laws, but what we should do to advance the public interest.


Dan Stein is president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.