Donald Trump's so-far incoherent softening this week of his hardline immigration policy is a good time to remind people of a fact that, in a just world, would be cause for painful introspection among Republican politicians and conservative commentators for years to come: This outsider real estate/TV mogul, less than three years after blaming Mitt Romney's loss on the 2012 candidate's "mean-spirited," "crazy," and "maniacal" policy of encouraging self-deportation, managed not only to win the GOP nomination on an explicitly anti-constitutional hostility to immigrants, but to pull almost his entire competitive set into an authoritarian fantasy land where borders can be "sealed," human beings can be treated like FedEx packages, the 14th Amendment can be wished away, and—what the hell!—a wall might be a good idea up north as well.
The GOP's nativist summer was revealing not just in the way that it accelerated the party's long trend away from the Reagan/Bush welcome mat toward a more Tancredoan restrictionism, but also in how it ratified the obviously unattainable demands of conservatism's entertainment wing as the party's preferred policy approach. Those commentators who damn well knew that you could never deport 15,000 illegal immigrants a day (plus another 5,000 or so of their U.S.-citizen children), yet cheered Trump on when he said crazy stuff like that, deliberately chose know-nothingism over reality. Never forget that the same National Review that showily came out "Against Trump" in January, were spending last August editorializing that "Trump's Immigration Plan Is a Good Start—for All GOP Candidates," while its editor encouraged the party to "pander to Trump on immigration."
All of which are reasons why Gary Johnson's column at CNN Opinion today is such a refreshing jolt of reality into a debate in which participants on both sides of the political aisle prefer to perpetuate fantasy. The Libertarian nominee for president gets straight to the point:
Rounding up more than 11 million people—a population larger than all but the 7 largest states in the union—is a ludicrous notion to begin with. Everyone knows it, including Donald Trump. It was a lie cloaked in a promise. Even if it were possible, the idea of federal authorities rounding up millions of people and loading them on buses is an image America could never stomach.
Emphasis mine. I agree with Nick Gillespie that it is good news Trump has flipped on this issue, but there is an underlying sickness with a political tendency that privileges such lies.
More bracingly obvious observations from Johnson:
The fear-mongers would have you believe 11 million people swam the Rio Grande, burrowed under a fence or otherwise sneaked into our communities in the dead of night. Yes, some of them did. But a significant number of undocumented immigrants actually came here legally—and stayed.
Many didn't come—and nor do they remain—for nefarious reasons, but because they found work, established relationships or joined family members. They couldn't stay legally due to special-interest-driven restrictions on their visas. They were students who graduated or found jobs, seasonal workers who found year-round work, or children brought here by their parents.
Of those who did hike the mountains of Arizona or stow away in a container ship, how many of them would have rather come here legally if the line to enter was actually moving? Almost all of them.
The key to illegal immigration, as we keep telling you here at Reason (and Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did 36 years ago), is to stop looking at it like a criminality problem, and start recognizing it as an artifact of prohibition and bureaucratization. As Johnson writes, "If it took months or years to get a driver's license, how many of us would throw up our hands, get behind the wheel, and take our chances driving without one? You know who you are." The reality of "Get in Line!" is the unspoken tagline: "And stay out." The Libertarian approach? "The way to stop illegal entry is to spend our resources making legal entry efficient for people coming here for the right reasons."
Immigration is not a simple policy issue (one of many reasons why it's still with us politically), and Johnson still has some convincing to do about the details of his approach, not least in terms of how precisely federal authorities will know enough about an immigrant's background, and what the new legal category will be created for former illegals who get right with the law. But here's his opening bid: "No caps. No categories. No quotas. Just a straightforward background check, the proper paperwork to obtain a real Social Security number and work legally or prove legitimate family ties, and a reliable system to know who is coming and who is going. Border enforcement will become what it should be: Keeping out real criminals, would-be terrorists and others sneaking across the border for the wrong reasons."
As entrenched as they may seem today, the two major political parties have each shifted a great deal over the years on immigration. Two decades ago, Bill Clinton's Democratic Party was positively Trumpesque in its security-first, crime-scaremongering approach, and it's only been since 2008 that Democrats have focused so singularly on a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally. But both parties have long since abandoned the notion that you have to primarily change the legal immigration regime if you want a policy that approaches sanity. I can't tell you if Gary Johnson's precise set of policy recommendations is the best approach, but it sure is refreshing to read a politician at least take a legitimate stab of describing the world as it really exists.