“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
This poem is on the Statue of Liberty, which stands in New York Harbor welcoming people from all over the world. From our earliest days, America was a land where people came for a fresh start.
Over the years, immigrants shaped what would become the United States. Some came involuntarily, such as slaves from Africa; others were fleeing harsh conditions in their homelands. Many came for economic opportunities. Congress began developing rules regulating immigration and citizenship in 1790.
By 1880, the U.S. population was 50,155,783. More than 5.2 million immigrants entered America in the next decade. In 1891, the Bureau of Immigration was established to enforce rules about who could enter the country and become citizens. As immigration increased, rules were adapted to changing circumstances and Americans’ changing attitudes.
By 1986, the need for reform was clear. Under Reagan, the Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants. In 1996, another reform bill was passed that upgraded the border patrol, increased enforcement against visa violators, punished employers who hired illegal immigrants, and restricted benefits for those here illegally.
Since then, attempts at immigration reform haven’t had much success. In 2013, a comprehensive bi-partisan immigration bill, S744, was introduced in the U.S. Senate. It passed 68-32. However, the Republican-controlled House refused to let the bill come to a vote, so it died in 2015, and President Obama never got a chance to sign it. Now Donald Trump is running on a platform of fixing all the problems. How does S744 compare with Trump’s plan? Which plan would be better for America?
The first provision of S744 was that no other provisions would take effect until border security was 90 percent effective. If that sounds low, remember that the Berlin Wall, separating East Germany from West Berlin, was 96 miles long, had 302 observation towers manned by thousands of soldiers trained to kill, and it was only 95 percent effective. S744 included surveillance towers, camera systems, ground sensors, drones, helicopters, radar and many other security features. Border security would have been very strong.
Trump’s plan requires nationwide e-verify, an electronic program that verifies whether someone is eligible for employment. S744 makes e-verify mandatory within five years. There’s no conflict there.
One provision of Trump’s plan is the deportation of every undocumented immigrant, about 11.2 million people. This would cost $400-600 billion, take about 20 years, and cause huge economic and societal disruptions. S744 would allow these people to obtain “registered provisional immigrant” status.
To get RPI status, they had to have lived here since 2011, pay a $500 fine, and have no felony convictions. After ten years, they could apply for a green card if they had learned English, been working, and paid all their taxes. People brought here as children (Dreamers) could get a green card in five years. Nevada would be affected, since we have 210,000 undocumented immigrants, about 7.6 percent of our population. S744 would be less costly and disruptive than mass deportations.
Trump says he would detain everyone crossing the border illegally. He seems unaware that the U.S. has the largest immigration detention system in the world. In 2012, we detained over 400,000 people in about 250 facilities at a cost of $1.7 billion. People are not pouring unimpeded over the border. They are being stopped and dealt with. How many more centers would Trump build?
The most egregious part of Trump’s plan is eliminating birthright citizenship. In spite of Trump’s claims, the 14th Amendment is settled law. Two Supreme Court cases, Lynch v Clarke and Lynch (1844), and United States v Wong Kim Ark (1898), settled the question of whether a child born on U.S. soil of non-citizen parents was a U.S. citizen. The answer was, “Yes.” If Trump wants that changed, he needs to pass another amendment. He can’t just act on his own.
America has a spotty record regarding immigration – who we allowed in and who we excluded. Emma Lazarus’s poem expresses the ideals we claim to cherish. S744 was a strong bill that would have solved many problems, but Republicans blocked it. Now they like Trump’s plan, which has several impractical, unenforceable provisions. Where is their common sense?
The Bible says, “...do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” (Zechariah 7:10) Whatever reforms we institute, they need to be humane and practical. We can do better than Trump.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.