President Trump on Wednesday unveiled the first proposals to make good on his promise to make America impenetrable to unauthorized immigrants and intolerable for those who are already here.
As expected, he promised to begin building a wall along the Mexican border, an enterprise that is far from certain because Congress would have to approve billions of dollars in funding. He also outlined a series of ominous regulatory changes aimed at drastically expanding the detention of immigrants who enter without permission. He is also seeking to turn more local police and corrections officials into enforcers of immigration law, while threatening to withhold funding from jurisdictions that have sensibly refused to assume that role.
The steps outlined in two executive orders set the stage for incarcerating thousands of immigrants who do not represent a threat, for widespread civil rights violations and for racial profiling. At the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that immigration laws “will be enforced and enforced strongly.”
Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant talk worked well on the campaign trail, as he convinced struggling Americans that foreigners were to blame for lost jobs and blighted communities. To carry out his promise of ramped-up immigration enforcement and border security, he will need to convince Congress and American taxpayers that spending billions to execute his plan is a worthy investment.
As is so often the case with Mr. Trump, the facts are not on his side. Illegal immigration to the United States has been on a downward trend in recent years, even as spending on border security has soared. Between 1983 and 2006, an average of 1.2 million people a year were apprehended trying to enter the country unlawfully. In 2016, just over 415,000 were caught trying to enter; most were Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty. Meanwhile, border security funding has increased from $263 million in 1990 to $3.8 billion in 2015.
Mr. Trump would add significantly to that spending. He has insisted that Mexico will ultimately pay for the wall — a vow that is either deceitful or delusional. Mr. Trump ordered federal agencies to tally the foreign aid Mexico receives from the United States, which seems like a threat to withhold future assistance for initiatives such as narcotics enforcement and judicial programs.
Even if Mr. Trump was to cut off aid to Mexico, the savings would be modest; it got roughly $142 million in 2016, which doesn’t begin to pay for a wall along the 1,989-mile border. Besides costing billions, the type of barrier Mr. Trump has proposed would cause severe environmental damage and lead to lawsuits over private land.
The executive orders do not address the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the country as children who were given a temporary reprieve from deportation by the Obama administration.
While Mr. Trump has the authority to order the detention of all immigrants apprehended while entering without permission and end the practice of releasing them pending court dates — which the executive order appears to call for — Congress should withhold the funding needed to carry out this plan. Leaders in so-called sanctuary cities, like New York and Los Angeles, have rightly recognized that immigrants, including those here without permission, are more of an asset than a burden. Their defiance is likely now to be tested by renewed calls to turn local police officers into immigration enforcers. The courage of local leaders may help stymie Mr. Trump’s misguided approach.