KEVIN LEININGER: Donald Trump must avoid Ronald Reagan’s naive mistake when crafting any immigration deal

President Trump has plenty of bargaining chips and should use them in any negotiation over what to do with so-called "Dreamers." (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

The president sounded positively giddy about the immigration-reform bill, predicting “future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.”

Those words weren’t uttered by President Trump this week. They were said by Ronald Reagan 32 years ago, who soon learned the hard way a lesson Trump should already understand if he’s half as smart as he thinks he is:

When it comes to illegal immigration, generosity will only guarantee additional lawlessness unless it is coupled with strict border security and enhanced enforcement measures.

History tells us that back in 1986, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act granted amnesty to about 2.7 million illegal immigrants in exchange for enhanced border security and employer penalties that were promised but never delivered. Since then the number of people in the country illegally has quadrupled, but that didn’t stop Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Cal., from suggesting just a couple of days ago that Republicans should pass some sort of amnesty for about 700,000 so-called Dreamers “with a commitment that we (then) go into a comprehensive immigration reform procedure.”

The response by Trump was not entirely encouraging. “I think a lot of people would like to see (comprehensive reform). But I think we have to do DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) first,” he said, gushing on about a “bill of love.”

During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, you may recall, it was Jeb Bush who embraced illegal immigration as an “act of love” — a tone-deaf position that helped propel Trump and his “build the wall” promise into the White House. It’s a position Trump must rediscover, because only by stressing enforcement can Trump keep faith with the American people while being as forgiving as possible to those living here illegally.

Under the Obama administration’s DACA program, some individuals who entered the country as minors illegally have been sheltered from deportation. Trump wants to rescind the program, but some congressional Democrats have suggested they may try to scuttle a deal on the 2018 budget — risking a federal government shutdown — if an acceptable DACA deal is not reached.

But let’s be clear: It is not loving to excuse the violation of America’s laws, and Dreamers have no more right to stay in America than children of bank robbers have the right to keep their fathers’ stolen loot. If the Dreamers are allowed to remain permanently, and a good argument can be made for that on both humanitarian and logistical grounds, that generosity should be offered only if it benefits America — and only in exchange for the legally enforceable safeguards needed to ensure the history created by Reagan’s well-meaning naivete is not repeated yet again.

That means not only improved border security and enforcement, but replacement of lottery and chain migration policies with a merit-based system. Some GOP senators are also suggesting legislation that would require employers to verify the legal status of employees, end “catch and release” policies and withhold some federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal officials to enforce immigration law — sometimes with fatal results for American citizens.

With Democrats seeking votes and some Republicans seeking cheap labor, many politicians have ample motive to do nothing. Trump, however, has no such luxury. His critics will continue to loathe him no matter what he does on immigration, and his base justifiably will desert him if the man who claims to be the world’s greatest deal-maker surrenders on the one promise most responsible for his victory.

The president had better make up his mind soon: The Department of Homeland Security reports that more than 40,000 people tried to illegally cross the Southern border in December, more than double the low springtime numbers attributed to Trump’s tough talk that has not yet been backed with tough but realistic action.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at or call him at 461-8355.