While campaigning in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley was asked about the surge of migrants at the border.
“When I’m president,” the former Republican governor of South Carolina said, “we’re going to stop catch-and-release, and we’re going to start catch-and-deport.”
No president has put forth such a stern-sounding policy on illegal immigration since Democrat Barack Obama. His administration deported over 2.5 million undocumented entrants, concentrating on those who had committed crimes. Illegal immigration was lower under Obama than Donald Trump, who hid weak enforcement under nasty talk.
Obama was dumped on by immigrant advocates who called him “deporter in chief.” Latino activists occupied some of his campaign offices.
But guess what? When it came time for reelection, Latinos turned out in record numbers to support Obama. Hispanics were credited with handing him three swing states.
So much for the political power of “activists” on this — and other — issues.
Listen to Haley’s views on immigration and you hear the usual things, some wrapped in vagueness. She said that undocumented immigrants should be divided between those working and paying taxes and “those that are feeding off the system.” She said, “If they’re feeding off the system, you send them back.”
Who can argue against sending back the freeloaders? But is she saying that people working illegally but paying taxes get a pass? Yes, possibly, but if so, she is not proposing anything that would stop unauthorized workers from getting jobs here in the first place.
Jumbled messages enabled her to tell an audience in an Iowa farm town that she would alleviate the shortage of workers — without getting specific. Trump didn’t want to burden farmers with the need to check the legal status of their labor.
Haley went after “sanctuary cities,” which nowadays is shooting fish in a barrel. That some cities wouldn’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities was reckless from the start. The current strain posed by the huge influx of asylum seekers has ended that kind of talk.
And there’s a lesson in all this for President Joe Biden. His policies aren’t bad. He just suffers from the Democratic disease of not taking credit for things most of the public supports.
Haley used the phrase “catch and deport” to distinguish from “catch and release” — a reference to the masses who cross the border, get themselves arrested and put in a claim for asylum. If they get past that low bar, it may take years to hear their case. Most asylum claims are eventually rejected, but in the meantime the applicants have settled in.
Trump’s famous COVID-era policy, Title 42, was, in effect, catch and release. It quickly turned back people at the border but came with no consequences for trying to enter illegally. Anyone turned away could try, try again and probably eventually succeed.
Under Biden, anyone entering the country illegally would face a five-year ban on reentry. That person could face deportation and possible criminal prosecution. Biden has also boosted enforcement at the border and now backs construction of more border wall in more heavily trafficked areas.
The need now is to modernize the asylum program so it can quickly adjudicate claims. Thing is, you need two parties to fix it, and until just a few weeks ago, a collapsed Republican caucus couldn’t get its act together to even elect a House speaker.
Candidates need to acknowledge these truths on immigration. The wave of migrants seeking better lives in rich countries is happening across the world. The number of genuine claims for asylum may be rising as well. This country may need more workers, but there’s no right to cheap labor.
Truth No. 1 is that the politics of it all are messy.
Froma Harrop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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