The afternoon before Donald Trump's Tuesday night speech to Congress, Twitter watchers were treated to a flurry of tweets, inspired by comments at the traditional lunch with network anchors, that the president was going to endorse something very much like the "comprehensive" immigration bills that foundered in Congress in 2006, 2007 and 2013.
That was wishful thinking, by people discounting Trump's constant promises and stuck in the decade-ago mindset that spawned the "comprehensive" legislation, that in Trump's view would have legalized illegals immediately in return for promises, never to be fulfilled, of tough border and workplace enforcement later.
In the House chamber Trump made that clear as he spoke briefly but tellingly on immigration. He began not by calling for new legislation—the usual subject matter of such presidential addresses—but by describing what he is doing and what is happening now. His unstated subtext: facts on the ground have made the "comprehensive" model irrelevant.
Those facts are being affected by the orders he has issued in his first month in office, orders requiring stricter enforcement of current laws which previous administrations didn't choose to enforce.
The Trump Department of Homeland Security widened considerably the number of criminal offenses for which illegal immigrants can be deported. It abolished the Obama administration catch and release procedure. It ended the procedure of sending unaccompanied asylum-claiming teens (or purported teens) to distant towns with summonses—seldom obeyed—to appear for a hearing later.
These changes are bound to have the practical effect of deterring illegal border crossings and altering the plans of illegals currently in the United States. Even those who have never had a brush with law enforcement may calculate that relatively innocent behavior—having someone crash into your car after you've had a couple of beers—could trigger a sudden deportation.
The result is likely to be attrition of the illegal population, or what Mitt Romney infelicitously called self-deportation. That's what apparently happened when Arizona required e-Verify checks on job applicants in the last decade.
The Trump order specifically excluded Dreamers—illegals brought here as children—from threat of deportation, effectively continuing Obama's 2012 DACA exception. That's widely popular: Americans don't like punishing children for the sins of their parents.
Trump has long said he's not eager to deport Dreamers, and perhaps he'll offer them legalization or even, as the lunch leaks suggested, citizenship in any immigration legislation.
If so, it'll be a bargaining chip for "comprehensive"-supporting Democrats who've sought legalization for almost all illegals. In return, Trump would seek what he called for when he got around, later in the speech, to possible legislation: "switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration and instead adopting a merit-based system."
This was the tenth point in Trump's ten-point plan in his Aug. 31 speech in Phoenix, delivered just after he met with President Enrique Peña in Mexico City. It's the major feature of legislation recently introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue.
It's based, as Trump noted Tuesday, on the point systems of the immigration laws of Canada and Australia. In those countries immigrants have above average incomes and education levels, not below average as they do here.
It's politically popular there and may be here. In Britain, Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings, noting that focus group participants without prompting praised "the Australian points system," made that a major part of the successful Vote Leave message. Like Brits, Americans who don't want more low-skill immigrants may also believe their nation can always use more Einsteins.
In seeking a shift to high-skill immigration, Trump is moving with the grain. Net immigration from Mexico, which the Pew Research Center says has produced the lowest-skill immigrants on average, fell to zero in 2007-14 and has not bounced back anywhere close to previous levels.
Meanwhile, immigration from Asia has been increasing. China and India together have accounted for more legal immigrants than Mexico at least since 2012. Asian immigrants are not all high-skill. But their education and skill levels are on average significantly higher than those from south of the border.
So America is already moving toward a high-skill immigrant inflow and Trump enforcement policies may be encouraging an outflow of low-skill illegals.
Requiring e-Verify for job applicants and establishing a visa-tracking system—which may require legislation but might be partly accomplished by regulation—would move us further toward a higher-skilled and legally sanctioned immigrant population.
That's a positive result, whatever you think of Trump's "great, great wall."