As I settled in to watch U.S. President Donald Trump make his Oval Office televised address to the American people on Tuesday night, a thought occurred to me — just how long have Americans been debating immigration reform? All my life, I suspected.
To be clear, I don’t mean debating immigration itself — all societies throughout history have had to grapple with that issue. It’s eternally complex and often controversial. I meant specifically how long the Americans have been grappling with the societal, political and economic complexities of the illegal immigration across their southern land border with Mexico. It turns out that I wasn’t far off — it’s arguable that the current status quo of interminable immigration reform debates could be traced back in general terms to the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986. I was three.
The point isn’t to debate, or even discuss, America’s long history of immigration reform (and let’s not kid ourselves, it didn’t spring into existence in 1985, when the Act was first advanced in Congress, either). The point is simply that I have watched every president I’ve paid attention to, starting with Ronald Reagan, try to fix the widely acknowledged problem on America’s southern border. None have pulled it off.
Reagan signed the above-mentioned Act, of course. George H.W. Bush signed a piece of follow-on legislation, the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the ceiling for legal immigration while taking steps to accelerate the deportation of those in the country illegally. Six years later, Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The name of that one tells you most of what you need to know. George W. Bush’s administration made several attempts to deal with illegal immigration during his two terms, culminating in the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which failed to garner sufficient Senate support to become law. Bush, defeated, abandoned the attempt. President Obama, similarly unable to push reforms through Congress, attempted to do so via executive orders — the constitutionality of that, not to mention the resulting DACA rules, remains contested.
Clearly, this has been an issue for decades. A full generation, in effect — and that’s only counting the current regulatory regime. Every effort mentioned above, and all the other proposals along the way that went nowhere, sought to come up with some kind of bargain that preserves legal immigration with all its economic benefits while stopping illegal immigration, while also seeking some legal solution for those already living in the U.S. illegally.
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Not one of these efforts has been entirely successful. A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States recently hit its lowest point in a decade, due to slowing arrivals from Mexico. That’s progress of a kind. But the total number of illegals already in the U.S. is an estimated 10.7 million people. That’s a million more people than the entire Chicago metropolitan area. It’s double the size of metro Boston. Illegal U.S. immigrants would form Canada’s second-most populous province, several million people ahead of Quebec. And there’s no real plan to deal with them, nor any guarantee that the number of arrivals won’t tick up again, with or without a wall.
The problem is obviously fantastically complicated. If there was an easy solution it would have been found already. The fact that the last five presidents have all grappled with this issue without “solving” the problem says more about the problem than the last five presidents. But as I was waiting for Trump to begin his remarks last night, it occurred to me that, as odious and cruel as his actions along the border have sometimes been … what else did people expect?
Trump, I have often argued, isn’t the problem, per se. He’s a symptom of the problem. Mass detentions of young children by dysfunctional government bureaucracies, a government shut down over funding for a wall, an increasingly nasty debate in an ever-more polarized country … this is what happens when all the usual players in governance — 30-plus years of so-called “adults in the room” — take stab after stab at a problem without really addressing it. No, let me be more blunt — while failing to fix it.
This is not to absolve Trump of his actions — he is the president, the buck stops with him. But the initial thing that brought him, and his country, to this place in history has been the long record of failure that preceded him.
The United States, like any other country, has the right to secure its borders. Like any other country, it has a right to be governed according to the rule of law — its own laws. Like any other country, it has the duty of setting rules on who’s allowed to be in the country, and who isn’t. You don’t have to spout Trump’s rhetoric about rapists and drug dealers to agree that the continued presence of millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S., despite repeated efforts to deal with their presence through some legislative means, reflects a massive and sustained failure of multiple presidents, numerous Congresses and both major U.S. political parties.
I don’t pretend to have an answer to any of this. Like I said above, I’m not an expert. But there’s no arguing our way around the fact that Trump, a deeply flawed man and president, is only in a position to attempt his bad solutions to this problem because it was allowed to fester so long that a sizeable chunk of the U.S. population has apparently decided that such buffoonish measures can’t be any worse than what’s already failed.
Failures have consequences, in other words. For decades, the U.S. political class tried to fix illegal immigration, a problem they all agreed existed. So now, along with a litany of abandoned proposals and ineffective half-measures, Americans have thousands of kids locked up in camps, a shutdown federal government, a deeply divided populace and, oh, yeah, Donald Trump as president. This is, perhaps, a lesson for politicians everywhere. Eventually, there’s no more road to kick that can down. And if you don’t get a job done, the voters might go with someone promising, no matter how implausibly, that he can succeed where you have repeatedly failed.
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