Op-ed: Yes, America first

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, September 4, 2016 9:06pm
  • Opinion

Donald Trump’s speech in Arizona has occasioned wailing and rending of garments among the commentariat and “respectable” people everywhere.

At bottom, the cause of the freakout is simple: Trump believes in immigration laws, and the country’s elite really doesn’t.

Minus a few trademark excesses that are too ingrained in the Trump shtick to abandon at this point — e.g., we are going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it — Trump’s speech was rock-solid on policy. The core of it represents what, more or less, any realistic regime of immigration enforcement would look like.

That the opinion elite recoiled in horror shows how out of sympathy it is with borders and what it takes to enforce them. It was understandable that everyone felt whiplash. Trump had primed people to expect something different, both with his public wobbliness over the past week and his quick strike into Mexico, where he lucked out in a successful meeting with that country’s hapless president, Enrique Pena Nieto.

And Trump didn’t do himself any favors by giving the Arizona speech in a rally setting. When he is in his shouty mode, Trump could read the phone book and make it sound like an outlandish screed.

All that said, Trump nailed a few theses to the door of his promised great, impenetrable border wall that are important and too often neglected:

—Immigration policy should serve the interests of the United States and its workers. This should be axiomatic. Yet it has taken Trump to make the proposition central to the immigration debate. There is no doubt that illegal immigration is good for illegal immigrants, but the first obligation of the United States is to protect its citizens and legal residents.

—Illegal immigrants compete against low-skilled workers already here and are a net drain on the government. The conventional rhetoric around immigration makes it sound as though we are overwhelmingly welcoming engineers and the like, when about half of illegal immigrants are high-school dropouts. Even if they work hard (and most do), they are unlikely to earn enough to pay much in taxes, and their families access welfare benefits through their children.

—“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally,” Trump said, “is subject to deportation.” This sounds radical only because of the progress the left has made in delegitimizing deportation. If we aren’t going to have a sweeping amnesty or tolerate the status quo, illegal immigrants must be subject to deportation.

—Legal immigration, too, should serve the interests of the nation. Republicans tend to obsess with illegal immigration. But it is a decadeslong surge in legal immigration that has us on pace to hit a historic high in the foreign-born population. It shouldn’t be out of bounds, as Trump suggested, to want to tap the brakes and adjust whom we are accepting to emphasize “merit, skill and proficiency.”

The opinion elite was never going to accept a Trump speech that didn’t have the “right answer” on the 11 million. By ruling out amnesty for now, Trump emphatically gave the wrong answer — although one that makes sense if we take our immigration laws seriously. An amnesty will act as a magnet for future illegal immigrants unless we have a comprehensive, functioning system of enforcement in place to dissuade them from coming. That’s why enforcement has to come first.

On the merits, Trump’s speech was the soundest immigration speech ever delivered by a presidential nominee, and a total policy victory for restrictionists. There are two problems, though.

One is that it is such a tough-minded agenda, it needs to be presented with a deft touch. Instead, Trump seemingly went out of his way to make his policy sound as audacious and threatening as possible.

Two, if Trump loses, this agenda will be discredited, and restrictionists will instantly be as embattled as ever, once again fighting a desperate rearguard action against a political establishment and opinion elite that consider their priorities bizarre and hateful.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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