Immigration

Trump ignores practical solution for stopping illegal immigration

"If you build a twenty foot wall, I will find someone with a twenty-one foot ladder."

So said Jesse Ventura, former Governor of Minnesota, in dismissing Donald Trump's idea of a wall along the U.S./Mexican border. Ventura could have added that digging under the wall or using a boat to go around it are other ways to undermine its effectiveness. There are other concerns, including exorbitant cost, negative environmental impacts, and projecting an image of the United States as an unwelcoming fortress. Still, there is no denying the visceral appeal of the idea to many Americans who are frustrated with years of perceived inaction on illegal immigration and who like the idea of an uncomplicated, blunt remedy. 

Unfortunately, Trump's favorite ideas about how to control the border, the ones he is pushing in tweets and at rallies, amount to treating the symptoms of a problem instead of the underlying issue. If Trump really wants to stop illegal immigration he should give priority to another idea, one that would be more effective and far less expensive than the $21 billion dollars it would cost to build a wall.

Anybody who has worked in immigration enforcement, as I did for over twenty-one years as a special agent with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, can tell you that the vast majority of those who cross the border illegally are seeking employment. The same obviously applies to the estimated 42 percent of the undocumented population who entered the country as students, tourists, or in some other temporary status and later violated their status by seeking employment. If it becomes virtually impossible for undocumented immigrants to obtain employment here, regardless of how they entered, a wall would serve little purpose as their incentive would be eliminated.

 

The authors of the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986 recognized this fact, as the law requires non-citizen job applicants to prove their legal right to work in the United States. But the legislation didn't go far enough because it doesn't require employers to verify the authenticity of identity documents through the federal government. The result: an uninterrupted flow of illegal immigration and a booming trade in counterfeit documents, particularly alien registration cards, also known as "green cards," and social security cards. Although a voluntary system of document verification known as E-verify was established, in most cases the authenticity of the documents are not checked by employers and there is no legal requirement to do so.

The law's ineffectiveness kept me and other special agents with the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service busy targeting the criminals who controlled the lucrative trade in counterfeit documents. Yes, we succeeded in locking up hundreds of criminals, but our efforts did little to stop ordinary undocumented immigrants from obtaining the counterfeit documents they needed to get jobs.

The Senate made an effort to address this problem when it passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that included provisions for a mandatory E-verify program. But Republicans in the House refused to allow a vote on the bill. Their failure to act has allowed untold thousands of unauthorized immigrants to secure employment in the intervening years.

Trump has, in fact, indicated support for the concept of mandatory E-verify, even designating 23 million dollars for this purpose in his proposed 2019 budget. But presidential budget proposals are rarely taken seriously and often amount to a wish list to placate various constituencies. Trump has given no indication that a mandatory E-verify program is a priority that he is willing to put his political weight behind, although polls show 80 percent public support for the idea. Indeed, the centerpiece of Trump's immigration policy has remained his proposal for construction of a what he calls a "big, beautiful wall" along the southern border, despite polls showing that only 40 percent of the public supports it. Now he threatens to shut down the government if he doesn't have his way on funding for the wall.

Trump's taste for lavish spending doesn't end with the wall. He has also called for hiring another 5,000 border patrol agents and 10,000 Customs and Border Protection agents. Aside from further exploding the deficit, placing innumerable officers at the border would be completely unnecessary if the job magnet were eliminated by an expanded document verification system. It is another example of treating the symptoms of illegal immigration instead of the underlying cause.

Unfortunately, the President does not seem interested in crafting a balanced and comprehensive immigration bill that could address a whole host of issues that have been festering for years. That would require working with Democrats, most of whom would find a document verification system far more palatable than a wall. Even Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a hard line opponent of almost any immigration enforcement measure, has expressed support for mandatory verification of immigration documents if it is part of a larger reform effort.

If Trump would drop his obsession with a wall and embrace the more effective, popular, and less costly idea of mandatory E-Verify, a compromise is very possible. But it seems doubtful Trump will rise to the occasion. Although it would be good for the country, resolving this contentious issue would deny him a valuable political weapon, one that helped vault him to victory in 2016 and that he hopes will do the same in 2020. What's more, calling for the use of a "big, beautiful database" to combat illegal immigration just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Bruce P. Kading retired as Chief of Fraud Investigations at the Chicago office of the INS after 21 years in government service; he is now a freelance writer and author of the novel Miguel's Gift, published by the Chicago Review Press.

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