Trump Can Go “Big” on National Security Without Compromising Security

Trump Can Go “Big” on National Security Without Compromising Security
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President Donald Trump took to Twitter last week to promise a “big day” on national security. But the resulting series of executive orders -- greenlighting the construction of a border wall, cracking down on sanctuary cities, and suspending the resettlement of refugees -- collectively have the reverse effect. They seriously jeopardize our security and safety.  

There are many ways to go “big” on national security, but the most effective are policies that balance security, safety, and immigration interests, not executive orders that pit these concerns against each other. However, the 2016 election season coincided with tragic terrorist attacks and swelling global refugee flows, fueling misguided campaign rhetoric around the need to essentially seal off our country from migration to keep it safe. 

Trump’s executive orders are a step toward making that rhetoric a reality, but they fall short in supporting our security. Here’s why: 

  • Building a $14 billion wall along a border that has seen more Mexicans leaving than entering in recent years will do little to regulate the unauthorized flow of people. An estimated half of the undocumented population currently in this country arrived via airplane on a tourist visa, which they then overstayed. The wall, at best, will divert billions away from other national security investments that would more effectively address unauthorized immigration, such as a comprehensive entry/exit system to track visa overstays. At worst, it will redirect more migrants into the hands of human smugglers and into their tunnels. 
  • Cracking down on so-called “Sanctuary Cities” -- effectively requiring local police to add the enforcement of federal immigration laws to their long list of duties -- dilutes law enforcement’s ability to fight crime in local neighborhoods. Sheriffs report that detaining the undocumented for petty offenses destroys trust with immigrant communities, making them less likely to report crimes for fear of being deported. When everyone from unauthorized restaurant workers to convicted gang members is a policing priority, nobody is a priority. 
  • Suspending the resettlement of Syrians -- the most thoroughly vetted of any group admitted to the United States -- and of other refugees reinforces terrorist propaganda about an Islamophobic, oppressive West. It sabotages the efforts of U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. It also represents a missed opportunity for resettled refugees to continue to serve as allies in the international fight against groups like ISIS. Muslim immigrants have been key informants in anti-terrorist investigations from New York to Germany and beyond. 
  • If Trump wants to go “big” on national security, he should instead address the country’s 11-million-deep haystack of undocumented immigrants. Their sheer numbers distract authorities’ search for needles: true security threats. 

The solution is to screen the unauthorized via a criteria-based mechanism to regularize their legal status. It is not to block them with deportation, walls, and bans. Some dismiss this solution as “amnesty,” but access to legal status would be hard-earned -- by paying a fine, settling up any unpaid taxes, waiting a number of years, and, most importantly, passing the rigorous vetting that is a standard part of our immigration process. 

Numerous statistics and studies underscore that the undocumented pose minimal security threats. But when mixed with the hundreds of millions of visitors, legal residents, and citizens in the United States, they add an unnecessary layer of complexity to efforts to root out terrorists and other high-risk individuals, simply because they are unknown. 

It is cost-prohibitive to deport them -- even right-leaning groups put the tab at $600 billion. Mass deportation would also wreak havoc on the nation’s workforce, population growth, and fertility rate

I recently worked with colleagues at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Bipartisan Policy Center to detail the additional security benefits of a pathway to legal status, along with other scenarios, in this paper authored with guidance from Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. The process of documenting “unknown” individuals subjects them to comprehensive biometric criminal background checks. Those who pass screenings would be issued identification, which would, in turn, tackle identity fraud and improve cooperation between immigrants and local police. 

Critics will correctly claim that offering such a pathway could motivate a new wave of unauthorized immigration. That’s why the process should happen in careful coordination with the other immigration system updates, including a completed entry-exit system, investments in the border’s technological infrastructure, and the updating of legal immigration channels to reflect today’s economic and geopolitical realities. 

It is not that far-fetched to believe that Trump could pivot from deportation to documentation, considering that there is a public mandate for the latter. Recent polls show that 70- to 80-plus percent of Americans support some form of legal status for the unauthorized. Conservative Republicans are twice more likely to support legalization than deportation. Even voters in Trump strongholds such as West Virginia and Oklahoma are wary of deportation. 

Following last week’s string of hardline executive orders, President Trump will most certainly face challenges in convincing incredulous immigrants to step forward and subject themselves to government screening. He must work with Congress to build this pathway, along with other important immigration reforms, via carefully coordinated legislation. 

It’s admittedly tricky work. The successful passage of a balanced immigration reform package has eluded the past two administrations. The last time our country completely overhauled its immigration system was in 1965.  

But if anyone is able to go “big” on this issue, it’s Trump. Just over one week into office, he is proving -- for better or for worse -- that anything is possible. 

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