No issue has generated more heat in this year's presidential election than immigration -- but neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton shed much light on the issue in their third presidential debate. Trump made his usual promise to build a wall and added to his insults against Mexican immigrants by warning, "We have some bad hombres here, and we're going to get them out." Clinton responded with images of deportation forces going school to school but quickly pivoted from discussing meaningful legal immigration reform to attacking Trump on his relationship to Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, most voters were left in the dark about what is really going on with respect to immigration.
Americans are right to want secure borders in a dangerous world. But America's borders have never been more secure than they are now. We spend more protecting our southern border -- more than $16 billion a year -- than we do on all federal criminal law enforcement by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined. What's more, the money and additional agents have paid off. Illegal immigration is at its lowest point in four decades. There are now more Mexicans leaving the United States than coming here, legally and illegally. But you won't hear that from Trump -- and even Clinton seems loath to mention the fact.
Trump said during the debate that he would fix the legal immigration system: "We're going to speed up the process bigly, because it's very inefficient." He's right about the inefficiency of the current system, in which applicants from Mexico, the Philippines, China and India must often wait decades.
But his idea of fixing the broken legal immigration system is to propose that we go back to laws enacted in the early 20th century that were driven by ethnic prejudice to favor northern Europeans like Trump's German grandfather and Scottish mother. Those laws, the first in our nation's history to restrict immigration, made it more difficult for Italians, Jews, Slavs and other southern and eastern European emigrants to come to America. Trump's version would put limits on all immigrants, calling for a return to "historical norms." He won't say how many that would mean, but you can bet it would entail drastic reductions, which would be a big problem for an aging American population. To keep our Social Security and Medicare systems viable, we need an expanding workforce and a growing population, yet without a continuing flow of immigrants, our labor force would decline and our population would shrink.
But Clinton's immigration policy is hardly ideal, either. She has spent more time talking about what she would do to give legal status to the 11 million immigrants here illegally than she has about how she would fashion a better immigration system going forward to prevent the same problem from occurring again.
Until we change our immigration laws to reflect our need for skilled workers at both ends of the spectrum -- more engineers, scientists and mathematicians at the high end and more agricultural workers, meat processors and laborers at the low end -- people will continue to come illegally or overstay their visas. But the unions that support Clinton don't want a viable guest-worker program and will insist on prevailing wage rules that make hiring foreign workers economically unattractive even when there are shortages of people willing to do certain jobs.
We need a real debate on immigration, but don't expect one in the remaining days of this presidential election. When all the ugliness and posturing is done, the country will still have to face this issue. The American economy is helped, not hurt, by immigrants, but we need a system that brings in immigrants with the right skills. And whoever occupies the Oval Office in January will have to work to fix our immigration system, not just lob insults, invoke fear or use the issue to try to win votes.