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Trump's costly immigration gamble

Social Security used to be considered the 'third rail' of American politics, but that was before immigration became the bad boy issue. After the deal that was struck on amnesty for illegal immigrants during the Reagan Administration in 1986, it was thought that we had rounded that corner and that things would improve.

They did, but not for Americans. Instead, more illegal immigrants were emboldened to try their luck vaulting the fence into the land of milk and honey and poured over our borders like ants at a picnic during the next four Presidents' terms. The border fortifications promised by the Congress were never completed. It seems that they had their fingers crossed behind their backs and had no intention whatsoever of fulfilling their promise. The situation got steadily worse, and every President moaned about it and vowed to work with Congress to get something done.

Congress being Congress, with all its special interests, could not agree on immigration reform, so what usually happens, happened. The situation was relegated to the back burner to simmer while another wave of illegal immigrants and a new demographic group swept over our borders: underage children, brought here by their illegal immigrant parents.

In 2012, President Obama, decided to do something to 'defer action' on deportation for this group of nearly 700,000 young people and chose an end run of immigration law. The result? DACA or 'Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals' was born. Most right thinking fair-minded people agree that children, anybody's children, should not be punished for the crimes of their parents, and for seven years we've been wrestling with several possible solutions to DACA.

The obvious solution, and the one most Democrats want, is to fix the problem with a 'clean' or standalone bill that gives the DACAns immediate citizenship. That's not going to happen; a pathway to it, maybe, but immediate citizenship, no. The Democrats also want to shoehorn in protection (amnesty or a pathway to citizenship) for the parents of DACAns. THAT's not going to happen, either. After all, they were the law-breakers. Other immigration issues have now been tied to a DACA fix by the White House. They are: stopping or seriously limiting 'chain migration' or family reunification (its PC-correct term) which allows a U.S. citizen to bring in a number of their foreign-born family members; securing the border with some combination of a wall, fence, electronic and human surveillance; and an end to the Visa Lottery System that was created to 'equalize' or balance the number of people granted 'Diversity Visas' to the U.S.A. This change was officially made to our Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1990.

The conflicting politics of all these items makes finding an acceptable solution to both political parties, to voters and to the immigrants, themselves, almost impossible which is why comprehensive immigration reform has not taken place. Opposing opinions are rooted in four areas: 1.) Our overall immigration policy and responsibilities; 2.) political party nest-feathering (increasing the numbers of immigrants who will one day pay them back at the ballot box); 3.) money (for border security); 4.) America's image abroad and 5.) Democratic Party opposition to literally anything Donald Trump does.

Without getting into the many hybrid plans that have been put forth by both parties over the years, I think we need to answer some basic questions about immigration. Question one: What are our responsibilities to our own citizens and do they take precedence over those of immigrants? Second: If we agree that immigration is good for America, what kind of immigrants do we want: skilled, unskilled, poor, rich, educated, uneducated? Third: From which countries should those immigrants come - ones that share our beliefs in democracy or any country that doesn't share our views or values? Fourth: How closely should we monitor their lives and actions as resident visa holders? Fifth: Under what conditions should we be allowed to deport them? Sixth: Should there be a maximum number of times that a person can illegally cross our border before we deny them any future residency in the U.S.? Seventh: Should we consider making illegal border crossing a felony which would solve the voting issue; one felony no vote?

The new White House proposal that is circulating for comment is enclosed in a one-page memo that was sent to congressional Republicans Thursday afternoon. It suggests a 10-12 year path to citizenship for not just the roughly 700,000 enrolled in the expiring DACA program but for other "DACA-eligible illegal immigrants" in the U.S. who are here illegally and who were brought here as children. The White House estimates that number to total 1.8 million people including DACAns.

The Trump Administration wants $25 billion for a border wall (the memo defines its request as "... a combination of physical infrastructure, technology, personnel, [and] resources"). The White House also wants changes made to the legal immigration system, including policies that prioritize family members "to [be able to sponsor] spouses and minor children only" - the so-called chain migration. The Administration wants to completely eliminate the Visa Lottery System (VLS), which the memo says "is riddled with fraud and abuse and does not serve the national interest."

This looks like a proposal everybody can agree to hate. Conservatives will scream about the extra 1.1 million illegal aliens that Trump added to the amnesty total. Liberals will complain about the inability of the DACAns to sponsor their parents for citizenship and the "unnecessary expense" of $25 billion for a border wall PLUS the elimination of the VLS. So, instead of offering a deal where there's 'something for everybody,' the President has produced a proposal that nobody will like, and in that respect it is no different from all the suggestions made by previous Presidents and Congress.

The big problem for President Trump is the potential loss of core supporters if the 1.8 million number of DACAns or DACAN-like illegal immigrants stays in the final proposal. This will be the biggest gamble of his presidency thus far, and he better be very careful how he does this deal as it could have massive repercussions on his support for upcoming legislation and for reelection. As Mr. Obama found out, every pen runs out of ink and every phone battery loses its juice sooner or later. When that happens, all a President can do is fall back on his base and pray that it's still with him.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written eight books and over 750 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at:

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