If there is one thing President Donald Trump has proven time and again, it is that he is always willing to fight the good fight – no matter the headwinds. Just a few months after a setback in following through on his signature campaign promise to build a wall on the Southern U.S. border, he comes back for more this week by unveiling an overhaul to our nation’s current immigration system. When touting the plan during remarks at the White House, President Trump stated that it would achieve two goals, “…it stops illegal immigration and fully secures the border. And, second, it establishes a new legal immigration system that protects American wages, promotes American values, and attracts the best and brightest from all around the world.” While coming back to immigration so soon after the border wall funding defeat seems like an exercise in self torture, it is actually quite smart and a political necessity for Trump.
Immigration has dominated the political debate for decades and has been a critical policy issue since the founding of the country. Creating rules for naturalization was one of the early achievements of the first Congress. On March 26, 1790, less than a year into George Washington’s presidency, An Act to Establish An Uniform Rule of Naturalization became law. This two-paragraph bill granted U.S. citizenship to any free, white person who lived in the boundaries of the US for two years. Applications could be made at any common law court of record with proof of residency and good character. In order to naturalize, immigrants would have to take an oath to support the Constitution. This relatively simple process has evolved into a system with thousands of pages of regulations that is plagued by fraud. President Trump is smart to keep trying to take it on for a few reasons.
First, the issue is not going away. The President and his team did an excellent job of highlighting the crisis at the Southern border during the wall debate. DHS officials were everywhere describing the chaos of people pouring into the country illegally and spilling out of holding facilities. Most working-class Americans – who are critical to Trump’s re-election chances – are still quite worried about the impact of illegal immigration in their communities. There are daily reminders in neighborhoods, schools, and work places of the dramatic impact the entire system has on the average American’s life. Most people will appreciate the fact that he is continuing the conversation about illegal immigration and that the President is now proposing reforms to legal immigration, as well.
Second, he could get a political win out of this. President Trump’s opponents have aggressively used the courts to stop the Administration’s agenda, but the legal immigration system is still under the purview of the Executive Branch. Grand reforms are laudable and necessary, but there also may be low-hanging fruit the Administration can reach by making internal policy or procedural reforms.
Take the O-1 visa for example. This nonimmigrant visa category is a gateway for highly-skilled foreigners with extraordinary ability to enter the country and begin the process of becoming a lawful permanent resident, which is one of the goals of the Presidents proposed “Build America Visa.” Approvals for the O-1 visa have doubled from approximately 54,000 in FY 2012 to over 111,000 in FY 2017. Some internal analysis of this trend and whether there are SMART ways to continue it could be beneficial. The criteria for obtaining the visa are very strict so it should not be a means to open the floodgates for any skilled professional, but the fact remains that some of what the President wants to do is already happening under his tenure. He should make note of that.
Continuing the debate about immigration will also keep the President where he seems to operate best – at the center of the political conversation. Rarely a day goes by where Trump does not dominate the news cycle. Tackling immigration is crucial, but also a battle that he will not completely win. This is a tough spot to be in during a reelection year since any victory or defeat will likely upset some major voting bloc. Most of his hard-core supporters understand what he is facing, but the reality is he will make some people angry. Despite that, his continued push will keep him, and his Administration out there focused on trying to move the ball forward to address this national crisis in the eyes of the people, which can only help him in the long run up to 2020.