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Trump needs a better approach to immigration because bullying isn’t cutting it

President Donald Trump takes the cap off a pen before signing an executive order to build a border wall on Jan. 25, in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

President Trump’s immigration enforcement initiatives, such as they are, have had a rough run in the federal courts. First came a series of injunctions against both the original and the revised moratoriums he’d declared on refugees and visitors from a number of predominantly Muslim countries — a policy that Trump recently referred to in a tweet as a “ban” despite the White House’s insistence that it was not. Now a federal judge in San Francisco has temporarily blocked another objectionable Trump policy: his threat to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, local jurisdictions where officials refuse to do the federal government’s job of enforcing federal immigration laws.

Rather than articulating a defense of his policies, Trump let his itchy Twitter finger take over. “First the Ninth Circuit rules against the ban & now it hits again on sanctuary cities — both ridiculous rulings,” Trump wrote. “See you in the Supreme Court!” That followed a noxious broadside on the courts from Press Secretary Sean Spicer that “the rule of law suffered another blow, as an unelected judge unilaterally rewrote immigration policy for our Nation.”

No, a federal judge looked at the administration’s bullying threat to withhold funds that it had no statutory authority to withhold and declared it unconstitutional. That’s the very definition of upholding the rule of law. And once again the Trump administration unleashed a campaign-style attack, trying to undermine the judiciary just because the president didn’t get his way. Somebody needs a time out.

The nation has a significant illegal immigration problem, and while Trump rode that issue to victory in November, it’s clear he still has no good ideas for what to do about it.

The wall? An expensive and ludicrous proposal that is losing appeal even among Trump’s supporters in Congress. And one that targets a problem thathas been waning for more than a decade. Last year, 409,000 migrants were caught at the Southwest border, down from 1.2 million in 2005.

Adding 5,000 Border Patrol and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to hunt deeper in the country for immigrants here illegally? The last time the government undertook such a hiring surge — 2006 to 2009 — it failed to properly vet the recruits, sparking a 44% increase in civil rights violations, incidents of corruption and off-duty crimes by border agents, like domestic violence. Besides, Congress has shown little interest in appropriating the funds — about $5 billion a year — to make the hires. Adding beds to accommodate the new detainees could add another $10 billion a year to the cost.

And while Border Patrol agents have reported a drop in illegal border crossings, that’s the outcome of a campaign of fear — arising from the administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and executive orders empowering immigration agents to seek the removal of anyone without legal status — not the result of a coherent and just policy framed with the nation’s best interests in mind. The benefits to law and order are speculative, but the disruption to American communities and industries is real.

Most of the 11 million people living in the country illegally have been here for more than a decade, and have become entwined in the fabric of communities despite their illegal status. They are longtime neighbors and friends, the parents of American children, and workers who fill a significant percentage of the jobs in the agriculture, construction and service industries. Kicking them all out creates more problems than it solves. So rather than rousting those who established themselves here years ago without permission and otherwise have not broken significant laws, the administration should work with Congress to revive the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill and tackle this issue in a humane, pragmatic and forward-looking manner that emphasizes what is best for the country. In fact, most Americans support immigration and immigration reform, and want a path for legalization for those who have been longstanding productive members of American society.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, immigration — despite society’s occasional surges of xenophobia — made this country. Not only does it define the nation’s past, it will define the future, as well. Yes, it needs to be orderly and controlled, which is why responsible national leadership is crucial. Instead, we get bellicosity and fear-mongering. With Republicans controlling both Congress and the White House, the immigration system is theirs to fix. They need to get to it, rather than pursuing draconian, legally unsound and disruptive enforcement strategies.