President Donald Trump's recent decision to seek an immigration deal with congressional Democrats is setting off an understandable implosion on the right. But beyond all the anger over the president's perceived betrayal on the so-called "dreamers" issue, the big story is that a historic and actually productive immigration policy is at hand. And this time, it can include long forgotten goals like true compassion, security, and economic sanity.
So, in short, here's the deal President Trump should offer to the Democrats that would not only quell most of the anger from his base but would be better for all of America:
Let's start with that "compassion" aspect of the deal. It's no small thing to provide some certainty and acceptance to roughly 800,000 younger people living here simply because their parents brought them here illegally. President Trump clearly gets this part of it:
Thus, the first part of any dreamer deal should be the promise that the U.S. government does not seek to deport these people unless they've committed felonies, significant misdemeanors, or there's clear proof they are basically living as dual citizens in the U.S. and their native countries.
Making sure the conditions of that immunity for deportations are upheld will provide the first part of the security needed to make the policy work.
The second part of that is doing much more to secure the border. Whether that means "building the wall" in real or virtual ways, hiring many more border enforcement and ICE agents, or streamlining immigration status databases that are reliable, all of it will be needed to make this compassionate policy mean something. If being compassionate to one group of illegal immigrants ends up being just the relaxation of all immigration laws for everyone else, then it's not really compassionate, it's just a retreat from the rule of law.
Even the perception of that kind of lenience could lead to some very cruel results. For example in 2014, tens of thousands of Central American migrants trekked across Mexico under the false belief that the Obama administration had essentially opened the U.S. border to young people. A frightening number of them were children and the U.S. apprehended as many as 68,000 of them.
The result was what President Obama himself called an "urgent humanitarian situation" at the border and in U.S. detention centers. He even asked Congress for billions in emergency funding to shore up border security and air surveillance to meet the rising deportation costs. Again, all of this was the result of the simple misinformation campaign convincing Central Americans that the U.S. was at least tacitly welcoming illegal immigrant children.
Now, it would be foolhardy to create a policy that will almost surely encourage more families to take the still enormously dangerous illegal path into the United States via our southern border. So on one hand the new policy must be compassionate and practical for the 800,000 or so people already here in the U.S. On the other hand it must be strict enough not to send out a confusing message that may be interpreted by millions of people that our borders are open to anyone coming with small children.
President Trump's tweet on Friday morning indicates he gets this part of it too:
That's why the dreamers cannot be automatically handed full citizenship and all its privileges. Unlike fully legal immigrants, President Trump and the Democrats should agree to withhold all welfare benefits from dreamers for a period of at least five years. Voting rights should be delayed for at least the same amount of time. They should not be eligible for in-state college tuition or benefit from preferred admission policies.
This part of the deal should be a major lure to the president's biggest legitimate anti-illegal immigration hawks. They may not celebrate the conditional amnesty from deportation President Trump should offer the dreamers, but they will support curbs on their ability to draw further resources from the social safety net.
That will be the moment of truth for the Steve Bannons, Ann Coulters and the rest of the right wingers who are angry about the president's deal making on the dreamers. They can prove they indeed are in favor of accepting hard working immigrants willing to work for the American dream. But if they're still opposed to this policy even with the welfare curbs and delays, it'll be had to argue they're anything more than old fashioned nativists.
This will also be a potential sticking point for Democrats. The left does not seem to understand the simple fact that a democratic society can have open borders, or it can have a welfare state. It cannot have both. This is true economically, because an open border society that provides welfare to all takers will quickly go bankrupt. And it's true politically, as no native population in a democratic society will tolerate open borders when all who cross them drain finite taxpayer resources. This political part of the equation is a big reason why Donald Trump is the president in the first place.
If Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Pelosi aren't willing to agree to voting delays and welfare curbs on the dreamers in return for the non-deportation promise, then there's no deal, period. For now, they are still pushing for the new version of the Dream Act that puts some conditions on a pathway to citizenship, but not enough curbs on voting rights and access to benefits like access to in-state tuition prices.
Of course, this will still cost money. The dreamers and or their families should have to pay a fine of some sort. In a bill proposed in the U.S. Senate in 2013 that did not pass, illegal immigrants were required to pay $500 for initial probationary legal status and another fine of $500 six years later. That would be a good number to start with, and no exceptions should be made. Let's face it, if each individual dreamer can't cough up at least $1,000 to avoid deportation, it's not likely they'll be able to comply with the delayed welfare part of this deal either. Immigration hawks will be scrutinizing this closely, because a series of fines that President Reagan proposed during his overhaul of immigration in 1986 were generally never collected.
The Democrats must prove to the American people that their interest in these immigrants isn't all about boosting Democratic Party voting rolls and increasing dependence on the government. They may even have to budge on allowing more voter I.D. laws if this is really going to work. If they can't do that, then they simply prove many of the worst accusations of the anti-immigration movement.
If executed properly, even today's dysfunctional Washington leadership could come to an immigration deal that shows proper compassion, boosts security, and makes economic sense. All the ingredients are there, it's just a question of whether President Trump and the congressional leaders want to make a positive difference.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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