Editorial Board

Trump's Immigration Raids Aren't the Problem

But they’re not the solution, either.

Only 10,999,999 to go.

Photographer: Bryan Cox/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images

By one measure, President Donald Trump’s immigration policy is one-third as harsh as his predecessor’s -- but it has generated at least as much if not more controversy. This is unfortunate, both because this particular controversy is unjustified and because it distracts from bigger problems.

Federal agents made 680 arrests in a series of immigration raids last week, sparking shock and alarm among immigrant communities that mass deportations are in the offing. Yet that number was one-third of the 2,059 arrests of criminal aliens made during five days in March 2015 under President Barack Obama, who was criticized by immigration activists as the “deporter-in-chief.” The question, as ever, is not so much what to do about criminals in the U.S. illegally, but what to do about the mostly innocent 11 million undocumented aliens in the U.S.

True, they also have broken the law, and are subject to removal. Yet no rational policy contemplates removing all of them. The expansive enforcement program that Trump has outlined promises to be impractical, divisive and counterproductive.

Immigration Reform

Obama’s immigration policy focused on two goals: stopping new illegal border-crossings and targeting for deportation aliens convicted of criminal offenses. During his administration, record numbers of undocumented aliens were “removed” -- a formal process with greater legal consequences than being merely “returned” -- mostly at the border. Meanwhile, deportations from the U.S. interior, where undocumented immigrants were more settled in communities, dropped by some two-thirds from 2009 to 2015. Obama also backed away from his predecessor’s controversial program to draft state and local law enforcement officials to go after immigration offenders.

Apprehensions and Deportations

Source: Migration Policy Institute and Department of Homeland Security

Trump, in contrast, would hire 10,000 new agents to strengthen enforcement, reinstate the use of state and local law enforcement as immigration officials, and authorize sanctions against so-called sanctuary cities that have resisted such measures in the past. Although the executive order claims to prioritize the removal of criminals, it expands this definition past the breaking point -- including, for instance, anyone whom an immigration official deems “a risk to public safety or national security.”

Aside from the question of whether this policy is feasible -- it would be expensive, and the Department of Homeland Security is having trouble filling its open slots now, never mind another 10,000 -- there is a deeper problem: This executive order would make it harder to stop the kind of criminal conduct it describes. No undocumented immigrant has any incentive to cooperate with law enforcement if doing so exposes them to deportation.

Deportation raids make for lurid headlines that may please Trump’s political base. But less theatrical measures would have far more dramatic effect. The single most effective way to reduce the illegal immigrant population, for example, would be to implement the E-Verify employment and biometric entry/exit tracking systems. The sooner Trump realizes this -- both the practical ways to enforce existing law and the realistic ways to bring about more effective policy -- the better off the country will be.

    --Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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