Immigration was clearly the issue that galvanized many of Donald Trump's supporters. But if he is to try to unite the nation, he needs to think carefully about how to proceed. If he does it right, he could pleasantly surprise his critics, including me.
Trump has repeatedly said he will cancel President Barack Obama's "illegal" executive orders, day one, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Some 4 million people who came here illegally as children would once again be subject to removal from the United States, an inhuman and economically self-defeating proposition. But Trump could mitigate the effect by accompanying this action with a pledge to support the DREAM Act. The bill originally proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has had bipartisan support in the past. It would accomplish the same thing as President Obama's DACA program in a way that honors the legislative process -- providing legal status to those who came here before the age of 15, have no criminal record, have paid taxes if they've been employed, completed or are in the process of completing high school, served or are willing to enlist in the U.S. military and learned English. Americans overwhelmingly approve -- 70 percent, according to the exit polls on Election Day -- of giving legal status and a path to citizenship to this group, as they do giving legal status to the rest of the 11 million who are here illegally but have paid taxes and committed no crimes since their arrival.
But if President-elect Trump is to keep his promise to stop illegal immigration, he has to do more than build a wall. Americans want better border security, and Trump has already pledged to increase spending, hire more agents and stop the practice of catching and releasing those apprehended at the border. But the most effective method of deterring illegal immigration remains allowing the market to dictate how many newcomers we need. We must provide a way for needed workers to immigrate legally -- something that simply doesn't exist under current law.
Trump could begin by offering legislation for a new, vastly expanded guest-worker program that would provide work permits for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers. We need more engineers and more agricultural workers. This used to be a tenet of GOP immigration policy, and the new president should make it one again. He could also make those temporary visas available first to undocumented immigrants who are already working, paying taxes and contributing to the economies in which they've lived, sometimes for decades. What those living in the shadows most want is the right to work legally, pay taxes and become part of the fabric of American life.
Building walls and deporting workers would harm our economy, not help it. President-elect Trump claims he will make America great again, but he could not do so by depopulating it. We need younger people in our aging American population. The median age of Mexican-born immigrants is 25, while the median age of Americans is 37. These younger workers pay taxes, which make our social safety net possible, especially Social Security and Medicare. A growing population adds to our wealth; it doesn't detract from it, provided those who come are productive members of our society. We can make sure that they will be by bringing in sufficient numbers of people with the right skills -- including the ability to speak English -- but also by limiting access to welfare programs for at least 10 years.
One other novel thing Trump could do, which might assuage those who worry that immigrants are an economic burden, is to create a system for American citizens and immigrants here legally to accept some financial responsibility by sponsoring those who come here. Under the immigration laws in effect in the 1970s and '80s, I sponsored a handful of immigrants, for whom I accepted financial responsibility if they ended up not being able to support themselves. I even had to submit my tax returns to demonstrate I could do so. I would gladly do the same again, especially for people who are already here and living in the shadows. So why not create a program whereby current residents here legally, citizens, businesses and nonprofit or religious organizations could sponsor unrelated individuals or families and guarantee the recipients will not become dependent on public assistance? Most would-be immigrants would jump at the chance of eschewing future welfare benefits. Even now, immigrants are less likely to receive public assistance than comparable native-born individuals, and undocumented immigrants are already prohibited from everything but emergency medical care.
If Donald Trump is looking to solve the immigration problem, he needs to broaden his horizons beyond building walls and deporting people. There are good ideas out there; he just needs to start listening.