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State of the Union Gets Immigration Almost Right

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Tuesday night’s State of the Union address came at a turbulent time. The impeachment proceedings and the Iowa caucus have stolen media headlines and the attention of the American public. Still, while fulfilling his constitutional duty, President Trump made a compelling case for his immigration agenda. 


He rightfully called out the proposal put forward by several presidential candidates and members of Congress to provide taxpayer-funded health care to illegal aliens. Such a move would not only massively increase the number of migrants seeking to come to the U.S. illegally, but would also skyrocket the national debt—which has already surpassed $23 trillion.

Likewise, President Trump also criticized and endorsed legislation aimed at addressing sanctuary policies—in which local jurisdictions refuse to collaborate with federal immigration agencies once they have apprehended a criminal illegal alien. These policies just result in criminals being released back into society—where they are likely to commit more crimes—by preventing common-sense collaboration between federal and local stakeholders. Just a few weeks ago, an illegal alien with a criminal record was released from police custody in New York and went on to rape and murder a 92-year-old woman

President Trump additionally called for the implementation of a merit-based immigration system—a reform badly needed in this country for decades now. He understands that immigration should be based on the best interest and needs of Americans. Instead of having a system that is primarily focused on family ties and that includes bizarre and ineffective procedures like the random diversity visa lottery, the U.S. needs a process that brings the best and brightest from abroad to our country so America can continue to be the world leader in innovation and entrepreneurship.  


However, even though the President effectively highlighted his achievements on immigration reform, explained current challenges, and set priorities for the future, he did overlook some critical issues. 

 He rightfully pointed out the benefits of building the wall at the southern border. But a wall is not the be-all-end-all. Something just as important—if not more so—that he failed to mention during the speech is the institutional deficiencies of the American asylum system. Asylum is a humanitarian tool that provides safe haven for those being persecuted in their home country. Unfortunately, it is currently not used for this purpose in most instances. Instead, migrants—primarily from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—at the border have used it to be reunited with family or to get a job in the U.S.

This was the real cause of the border crisis. The asylum system is an overly bureaucratic process that takes a significant amount of time to complete, and has notable loopholes that allow for it to be abused. With the increased number of those seeking asylum and the limited number of immigration judges, the process became overwhelmed, and the backlog in immigration court surpassed 1 million, taking on average almost two years for a case to be heard. In the meantime, asylum seekers were quickly released into the interior of the country—especially if they brought a child with them—and after a while, they were able to receive work authorization. 


The implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) —the “Remain in Mexico” policy—and the asylum cooperation agreements with the governments of the Northern Triangle countries took away the incentive for migrants to make fraudulent asylum requests, and the number of migrants apprehended at the border decreased significantly. It is no surprise, therefore, that President Trump mention in his speech that the enhanced collaboration in immigration enforcement with these countries is one of his major immigration accomplishments. 

However, while successful in alleviating the crisis, these two measures are not long term solutions because Mexico and the Northern Triangle are not safe places. Mexico, for example, experienced the most violent year in its recorded history in 2019, with over 34,000 murders. Vulnerable migrants in Northern Mexico under MPP are in heightened danger, with over 800 reported cases of crimes against them since the implementation of MPP a little over a year ago. 

Outsourcing America’s humanitarian and immigration responsibilities to countries that cannot ensure the security of their own citizens is not the answer to our immigration problems. Strengthening the rule of law in Mexico and the Northern Triangle by combating corruption and reducing violence should be among the most critical foreign policy priorities of the federal government, since that will reduce the number of people fleeing towards the U.S. and prevent transnational criminal organizations from operating with impunity in the region. 


 In short, even though the State of the Union was not perfectly thorough on this issue, the president convincingly promoted a better vision for the American immigration system, border security, and interior enforcement. Missing from his speech was the need to address the institutional deficiencies of the American asylum system and the need to help implement the rule of law directly south of the American border. All of the immigration policies the president highlighted are unquestionably necessary, but these two missing items, in particular, are critical for real and long-lasting reform.

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