Ethics & Public Policy Center

Trump Won’t Get a Deal with a Border Wall. Here’s a Better Approach.

Published in The Washington Post on December 18, 2018


President Trump backed off of his demands for a $5 billion border wall early Tuesday in his ongoing spending showdown with Democrats. That’s certainly understandable, as the wall may not have been the best place for him to fight over immigration policy. Building the wall won’t expand his political support, nor will it solve the real problem we have with illegal immigration.

Trump and the GOP badly need to expand their support. The midterm exit polls showed Trump had a 45 percent job approval rating, and Republicans received roughly 45 percent of the congressional vote. Trump’s job approval rating was underwater in three crucial Midwestern states that he carried in 2016, and unless his image improves, his reelection will rely on Democrats nominating a surefire loser.

Polls have almost always shown more voters disapprove of the wall than approve of it, and that presumably includes the key group that swung the midterms to Team Blue: moderate, educated suburbanites. Doubling down on an issue that reminds people why they don’t like you isn’t the best idea.

Those same polls, though, show Trump is well regarded when it comes to controlling our borders. Last week, for example, an NBC/Marist poll showed that more than half of Americans approved of how he was “handling the protection of U.S. borders.” Other polls show that huge majorities oppose sanctuary cities and a clear majority oppose abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Trump’s political calculus, then, should be on shifting the debate to something more popular that could also effectively protect the border and reduce illegal immigration.

That something would also deal with the real illegal-immigration issue, people who have lived in the United States for a very long time. Pew Research Center data shows that the number of people living illegally in the United States has been dropping since 2007. More importantly, nearly two-thirds of those who remain have lived in the country for at least 10 years. You can build a perfectly effective wall, and you will still have more than 10 million people working and living here without legal authorization.

The working part is the most important. Nearly 8 million of those immigrants are in the labor force, and the vast majority are employed. Trump’s core, blue-collar supporters have long opposed foreign trade and illegal immigration — which makes a lot of sense, as they are the ones facing serious competition from less-skilled foreigners whether they are living abroad or in our midst. Meeting blue-collar supporters’ concerns means not only stemming the flow of illegal workers but also reducing those populations that would remain behind a wall.

Trump should fight for his wall, but he should also be open to creative, humane ways to reduce demand for workers who come here illegally. One way he can do this is to support a tax credit of, say, $2,000 per person who is hired for a wage under $40,000 a year — if the employer uses E-Verify. This would create an economic incentive for employers who typically look the other way to check the immigration status of everyone they hire. That would slowly make working in the United States without a visa less attractive and would likely increase the demand for low-skilled workers who are here legally.

Some fiscal hawks would worry about how to pay for this. In today’s climate, such concerns seem quaint — what’s an additional $20 billion or $30 billion against the nearly $800 billion deficit? But there’s an easy source of money to tax to cover the cost: remittances of money sent home by those working here illegally. In 2016, more than $138 billion was sent out of the United States by immigrants, many of whom are not legally in the country. Lawmakers have previously introduced proposals to tax remittances from people who could not prove to the entity wiring their money that they are here legally. A 10 to 20 percent tax on such transfers could either raise a lot of money or convince workers that it was no longer worth staying in the country.

Most Americans want to both gain control of our borders and be fair to immigrants who have long lived here. Trump’s focus on the wall hasn’t been enough to build Democratic support for a deal to do so. Perhaps shifting tack to something more popular and more comprehensive can do the trick.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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