A way to fix immigration problems

Daniel Henninger:

No doubt buried somewhere inside the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings is an important issue related to the rule of law or national sovereignty. Just don’t expect anything resembling serious thought to compete with images of kids in Border Patrol processing cages.

President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the parental separations. Reassembling these families may slow the bleeding for Republicans, but it won’t solve anything related to illegal immigration.

In 1986, after a mighty legislative struggle during the Reagan administration, Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act. Its purpose was to control the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. More than 30 years later, we are putting them in holding pens.

Neither liberal fixes nor conservative restriction has accomplished anything.

For eight years, the U.S. had a liberal president in Barack Obama, and immigration remained a mess. Conservative talk radio turned it into a political weapon built around one word—“amnesty”—which has produced one thing: legislative gridlock.

With Mr. Trump, the U.S. has possibly the most restrictionist president since Republican Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, banning immigrants from China as a threat to U.S. labor.

Mr. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was the most restrictionist member of the Senate during the Obama years. Sen. Sessions’s communications director, Stephen Miller, is now President Trump’s primary adviser on immigration policy.

It remains a mess. Just maybe, we are doing something wrong.

A strong clue to what’s wrong emerged from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s press conference at the White House this week. Well, it wasn’t a press conference. It was more like a Maoist struggle session, with few straight questions. Example: “President Trump has had a lot to say the last few days about immigration, but he’s offered no compassion to the families that are being separated. Do you know why that is?”

Still, a light went on when Secretary Nielsen said the separated children were being cared for by the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS was involved in this, too?

For more than 30 years, our “solution” to the illegal immigration problem has been to throw wave after wave of federal bureaucracies at it. What could go wrong? More accurately, how could it not get worse?

Among the proposals to emerge from the Senate this week were . . . build more detention facilities and hire 375 more immigration judges. That’s the answer: more swamp!

President Trump recognizes what a fiasco this approach is. Arriving Tuesday on Capitol Hill to meet with Republicans, he said: “It’s been a really bad, bad system, probably the worst anywhere in the world. We’re going to try and see if we can fix it.”

Mr. Trump’s well-known alternative is to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S. But another Trumpian solution is available: Let the American economy fix it.

During the Obama years, a recurring complaint by some conservatives was that illegal immigrants had taken jobs from unemployed Americans. Donald Trump, while running for president, could not have foreseen how his economic policies—a rollback of virtually the entire Obama regulatory regime and a large tax cut—would effectively eliminate this issue in 18 months.

Today there are more jobs available than there are unemployed people. The unemployment rate for black Americans 16 or older was 5.9% in May, the lowest since 1972. The overall unemployment rate, at 3.8%, is expected to fall further.

One reality remains, however: Thousands of American employers in agriculture, hospitality, construction, landscaping and manufacturing in virtually every U.S. state still need the kind of labor those immigrants provide, such as fixing roofs, cutting grass, cleaning hotel toilets, and sorting crabs and fish. In the Trump economy, most Americans don’t need to do this work. But someone’s gotta do it.

We have run the experiment on letting the federal bureaucracies solve the illegal-immigrant problem and have proved conclusively: They can’t. So why not give the market a chance to solve it?

Give these adults work visas that let them enter and exit the country at legal entry points as the labor market requires. A reason they bring their children with them is that if they leave the U.S. now, there is no legal way to re-enter for work.

Yes, there are details, but surely this market-based solution would be easier to administer than the never-ending travesty at the Mexican border.

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras would benefit socially and politically if more of these working-class people could go home legally. What’s left behind there now are the dregs and gangs who drive constant streams of people north.

We can either let the world’s strongest economy control the immigration flow, or let politicians and bureaucrats keep trying. The latter will produce another bog of embarrassment, like the one we all stared at in Texas this week.

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