Delivering on immigration
As he planned his improbable ascent, a peculiar election result from a small Western state might have caught Donald Trump’s eye. In 2014, Oregonians voted nearly 2-1 against a ballot measure that would have allowed the state to issue driver’s cards to people who could not prove legal residency in the United States. The proposal was a modest public-safety measure, but most voters saw it as an accommodation of illegal aliens and said no — hell no. Trump saddled that same emotional response and rode it into the White House. Now he must deliver.
The president made a start last week. He took executive action to start construction on a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, a step toward fulfillment of one of his most frequently made, and most loudly echoed, campaign promises. And he moved to cut federal grants to “sanctuary cities,” striking a blow against the same political impulse that Oregon voters rejected in 2014: the impulse that crafts humane and pragmatic policies that are perceived as creating more space in American society for undocumented immigrants.
How these initial steps will be completed is far from clear. The cost and configuration of the wall — in some places, it’s likely to be more like a fence — are not known. Trump insists that Mexico will pay for the wall, an idea firmly rejected by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Various ideas for financing the wall have been advanced, including a 20 percent tax on goods imported to the United States from Mexico. Such a tax would be paid by American consumers, not Mexicans.
Pena Nieto had planned to meet with Trump this week, but the event was canceled after Trump reiterated his demand that Mexico pay for the wall. Trump will need to guard against creating problems that would prove far more costly than a border wall. A tax on exports to the United States would affect 80 percent of Mexico’s trade, damaging the country’s economy. Humiliating Pena Nieto, who is already politically unpopular, could open the door to a disruptive successor. Economic instability, political turmoil or both in Mexico would damage U.S. economic interests, create security concerns and trigger higher rates of illegal immigration.
The crackdown on sanctuary cities is similarly vague. The Trump administration has not defined what a sanctuary city is, but they come in several varieties. There are even sanctuary states, including Oregon. Many state and local governments, or the heads of their police agencies, have said that police will not inquire about the immigration status of people they contact. The aim is to keep the police from taking on the responsibilities of federal immigration officers, and to maintain trust among immigrant populations. Such policies involve setting priorities for public safety, not defiance of federal law.
In other cases, sanctuary cities decline to detain people suspected of being illegal immigrants until federal immigration agents can take custody of them. This is often due to a shortage of jail space or a lack of federal reimbursement for incarceration costs, not a refusal to cooperate in the enforcement of immigration laws.
Few jurisdictions that have labeled themselves sanctuaries are actively working to frustrate the enforcement of immigration laws — they’re just not cooperating to varying degrees. The Trump administration will have to draw the line between defiance and non-cooperation, and some grants can’t be withheld without congressional approval. Too far-reaching a cutoff would face legal action by cities or states on grounds that the U.S. government can’t compel them to spend their money to enforce federal laws.
Trump understood the emotional power of the immigration issue better than his rivals. But delivering on his promises will require coherent, constructive policies. Devising them will prove harder than tapping a vein of anger and resentment.