Moment Debate | ‘If People Can’t Get Across, They Won’t Have to be Arrested’
Should the United States restrict immigration?
I think there should be a limit on immigration, but we shouldn’t restrict it to zero. I think we need to be smarter about its composition and prioritize people with skills that could help the economy. We have a policy right now that prioritizes family-based immigration, which is not particularly smart. Canada has a more sensible policy that prioritizes skills.
Many conservatives, and liberals too, think we should reduce legal immigration because of competition with American workers from new immigrants. But I see two major economic reasons to continue robust legal immigration. First, legal immigrants with skills create jobs both for themselves and for Americans; and second, we have a very expensive entitlement system that needs more workers paying into it if it’s going to survive. So we want to encourage people who are going to generate value.
There are arguments against certain kinds of legal immigration, and we need to ensure that immigrants coming here legally also have an appreciation for American institutions and values. Perhaps we need a more robust way of screening that, but in general I’m pretty supportive of legal immigration.
Do Jews have a special responsibility toward immigrants?
The Torah instructs us to welcome the “stranger.” In the original Hebrew, however, the word for “stranger” is the same as the word for “convert.” The implication is that the “stranger” agrees to obey our laws. The rabbis interpret these verses in precisely that way. Those who cross the U.S. border illegally are disobeying the law, and we do not owe them any special obligation. Arguably, Jews have an obligation to speak up in defense of those fleeing religious persecution and political repression. But at the moment, the asylum process is being abused by many people whose applications are improper or even fraudulent and who are crowding out those truly in need.
Does the family separation controversy reflect a broad desire to reduce immigration levels?
No, and the controversy is not really about family separation. The policy was to enforce existing immigration laws, which prohibit detaining parents with their children beyond a certain period. And so when parents were detained for crossing the border illegally, they had to be held separately from their children.
I don’t think what’s happening has anything to do with restricting legal immigration. We’re not enforcing our laws, and child smugglers and criminals take advantage of that. Many illegal immigrants are trafficked across Mexico by gangs, and those gangs are violent and are engaged in basically an undeclared civil war. By encouraging that to continue, as our current behavior does, we are adding to the suffering both of migrants traveling through cartel-controlled areas and of people who live in those areas. We need a smarter policy, and that’s what the Trump administration has been trying to do, though particularly regarding the wall, it can’t get Congress to do its part.
So should we build a wall?
I think so. Israel has shown you can shut down illegal immigration across borders with an appropriate barrier. They’ve reduced illegal immigration across the desert from the Egyptian border almost to zero. And I think you have to do it, because it turns out that enforcing the law in situations where you have border patrol agents interacting with human beings, even if they’re heroically rescuing people, tends to bother the public. People are compassionate, and they don’t like to see these laws being enforced. A wall is the best way to reduce public discomfort with enforcing existing laws. If people can’t get across, they won’t have to be arrested.
Has the distinction between legal and illegal immigration become muddled?
I think it is deliberately being muddled by people who want to provide amnesty for illegal immigrants, and also because the Democrats want to create an impression with voters that Republicans are xenophobic and anti-immigrant. So if a Republican administration is arresting illegal aliens, you have headlines in all the major media saying “Republicans Attack Immigrants!” It’s not a problem restricted to left-of-center media. I complained just recently about something Fox News had said that made it sound as if President Trump is opposed to all immigration. But that just shows how successful the effort has been to blur the distinction.
Is Trump also trying to appeal to his base by taking on legal immigration?
No, not at all. Donald Trump is not anti-legal immigration. His wife is a legal immigrant. I’m from an immigrant family, and one cannot overstate the frustration felt by legal immigrants when they see illegals get preference from the media, Democrats and law enforcement. If you’ve spent years waiting in line and paying immigration lawyers and filing papers because you respect the law, it is really frustrating to hear people who are breaking the law described as heroes. The Trump administration gains nothing from blurring the distinction, and I don’t think he has done that.
I think the majority of voters support enforcing immigration laws. There was certainly a lot of popular sentiment about what happened at the border, but that was an emotional response to what people were seeing on TV. People are tolerant; they want a reasonable system and pathways to citizenship for certain groups. But what’s most important to Trump supporters is enforcing the laws, which every candidate, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, promised to do.
People want to see construction of the wall. It’s one of the few campaign promises on which little or no progress has been made, and I think people understand that it’s because Congress has dragged its feet on funding. There’s no reason for Trump to get in a fight about legal immigration. He’s not going to get more support from his base because of it. The support will come when the wall is built.
Joel B. Pollak is a senior editor-at-large of Breitbart News and co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution.