Commentary

US Southern Border Is in Disarray – But Momentum for Immigration Reform Is Building

By James Carafano | April 12, 2019 | 9:52am EDT
President Donald J. Trump (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It might seem odd that in the midst of a border crisis caused by a massive surge of illegal immigration, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., reintroduced a bill to reform the legal immigration system.  

But that move wasn’t out of step at all.

America needs legal immigration reform—and not just because the current system is antiquated, leaving the U.S. ill-prepared for immigration in the 21st century. Lawmakers need to demonstrate that they can tackle all the unique aspects of the mess that have combined to make the current crisis possible. They need to gain the trust of the American people that they can, in fact, start delivering sensible solutions.

Cotton’s bill is called the Raise Act. News coverage has focused on the number of legal immigrants it proposes, but that misses the bigger picture. Our entire system needs an overhaul, a shift away from chain migration to a merit-based system. Such a system would strengthen the economy, help create jobs, and reduce the financial burden of immigration on American taxpayers.

My colleagues at The Heritage Foundation have laid out the case for this kind of reform and detailed the key components of a positive legal immigration reform plan. These ideas have legs, and not just with a few members of Congress and conservative think tanks. The White House has also embraced key initiatives to reform the legal immigration system.

Momentum for an immigration reform agenda is starting to build.

In addition to embracing a merit-based approach, Cotton’s bill is smart in that it handles one key aspect of reform as a stand-alone issue, rather than wrapping everything together into one massive Obamacare-style Gang of Eight bill. The latter approach would inevitably—as compromises in big bills usually do—create more problems than it would solve.

Rather than bundle legal immigration, border security, and enforcement reforms into one comprehensive package, Congress should debate each area separately, allowing each to advance on its own merit. That’s the best way to keep a pro-immigration and pro-enforcement agenda on track.

We know from the news, however, that legal immigration reform is just one piece of the problem. The border is a hot mess. President Barack Obama’s former border chief, Mark Morgan, described the current flood as being “at a magnitude never seen in modern times.”

In response, President Donald Trump changed out his Department of Homeland Security team wholesale and proposed a number of drastic measures, including closing the border and cutting off aid to Central America.

Critics might argue that swapping out leadership and pursuing other measures won’t fix the problem because the real problem is the loopholes in the law that prevent the government from quickly removing illegal border-crossers. Only Congress can close the loopholes.

But here’s the president’s thinking. He’s changing out leaders to demonstrate that he is willing to take any and every measure within his legal power to try to secure the border.

In the end, there will be only one inescapable answer: If the border still isn’t secure, it’ll be because Congress has failed—failed to provide the resources for Border Patrol, and failed to deliver the laws that will allow the president to secure the border.

And there’s one more factor in all of this that could potentially add momentum to the push for border security.

State Secretary Mike Pompeo is currently on a swing through Latin America. While a lot of the news has focused on efforts to deal with the corrupt, oppressive regime in Venezuela and the encroaching influence of China, the U.S. is making strides to achieve cooperation.

This administration is, in fact, committed to partnering with Latin American countries—to grow economies, improve governance, expand economic freedom, and deal with the migration crisis. One clear example is increased U.S.-Mexico cooperation on processing refugee claims.

So don’t despair. While the news on immigration and border security seems dour, beneath the headlines there is a growing movement to finally get migration under control.

James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges, is The Heritage Foundation’s vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, E. W. Richardson fellow, and director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.

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