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Immigration reform: Keep it small, keep it real

011318 Editorial SATURDAY immigration pic-web
Contractors have already completed eight prototypes of President Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico, triggering a period of rigorous testing to determine if they can repel sledgehammers, torches, pickaxes, and battery-operated tools. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool)

President Trump likes to do "yuge" things: tall hotels, massive walls, big deals. Congress, meanwhile, tends to make bills more complex as parochial interests and powerful lobbies tack their favored provisions on to bills as they move through the Capitol.

For any immigration bill, these habits would be fatal. Congress and Trump should pass a small immigration deal, resisting any push for “comprehensive" immigration reform. In fact, the House bill probably already has too much clutter.

The White House’s press release generally supporting the bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., noted only four provisions: “The president looks forward to advancing legislation that secures the border, ends chain migration, cancels the visa lottery, and addresses the status of the DACA population in a responsible fashion.”

It’s noteworthy the White House listed only these matters, because there’s plenty more in the bill. The bill addresses sanctuary cities, thus creating tensions with conservative ideas about local control and federalism. It also deals with interior enforcement and employment verification, or E-Verify, matters.

Those latter issues are relevant and important, but they could derail the bill. The more comprehensive the bill is, the more other lawmakers will want to tack on their favorite provisions. Next thing you know, the business lobby will show up, asking for more guest workers or specific new visas. Refugee and asylum provisions will get thrown in.

Amnesty-type provisions for all illegal immigrants, not merely those who entered as children, would be next. Suddenly, we’d be back to some version of the Gang of Eight bill that struck politicians as a great bipartisan compromise, but struck the Republican base as a cornucopia of special-interest pleading seasoned with an insufficient sprinkling of border enforcement.

Let's keep it narrow.

Starting with childhood illegal immigrants and a wall makes perfect sense. What to do with former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, is time-sensitive. These immigrants received temporary forbearance from deportation under Obama. Trump has said he won’t renew that. The fitting and just step would be Congress, through legislation, granting permanent legal status to these immigrants who entered illegally through no fault of their own and have paid taxes and followed the law ever since. To delay this matter would cause anxiety for DACA recipients, their employers, families, schools, and communities, and it could cause legal trouble.

The wall, and other border enforcement measures are also rightly included in this measure. Building a wall was the main campaign promise on which Trump ran and won. Increasing border security is crucial in a country that has more than 10 million illegal immigrants. A wall is a tangible, visible, permanent border security measure that will be complemented by other measures.

[Did Trump just rule out 75 percent of his border wall prototypes?]

But legal immigration also desperately needs reform. There are a million ways to improve our system, but the best place to start is with the most significant and least justifiable means by which immigrants, not visitors, enter our country. It’s the one-two punch of the diversity lottery for green cards and chain migration.

The diversity lottery, an ill-executed effort to ensure we got immigrants from more than one or two countries, is an arbitrary way to parcel out green cards among the hundreds of millions of foreigners who want to be Americans. In turn, these randomly selected immigrants are then free to bring in family, under the salutary-sounding name of “family reunification.” The problem is that the chain is endless.

Imagine a man who wins the lottery and gets to immigrate. If he gets married, his wife gets to enter. Then both can become citizens. Then this couple can bring in their parents. After they become citizens, they can bring in the rest of their children, their children’s spouses, and their children’s children. The in-laws can bring in their parents, and so on.

The White House rightly wants to scrap this system, which is designed without the national interest in mind, and replace it with a system that uses more discretion in whom we invite to live here. Unifying families, by allowing an immigrant's spouse and minor children to enter is good. Endless chain migration is not, and almost nobody defends it.

So the four pillars the White House laid out are sensible. Help young, blameless illegals currently in limbo, deliver Trump’s core promise on border security, and replace the least sensible part of our immigration laws.