President Donald Trump decided Sunday to force the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as if her departure could magically fix the nation's immigration problems. No matter who occupies the top spot at Homeland Security, Trump's frustrations can only grow as long as he mistakes a harsh border crackdown as the sole solution to America's broken immigration system.
Nielsen definitely had her quirks and shortcomings. She rationalized immigrant family separations as equal to American children being placed in protective custody when their parents are arrested for major felonies. Entering the United States and seeking asylum to protect a child from gang violence in Central America is not a felony crime and bears no comparison to felony cases where a child's life is endangered.
Nielsen faithfully echoed hard-line White House policy nonetheless. Her problem, Trump has indicated, was that she wasn't hard-line enough. He declared an intention to go "in a tougher direction" two days before firing Nielsen when he withdrew the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Trump's tough talk is the product of Stephen Miller, an articulate, persuasive extremist who advocates imposing harsh detention conditions — including family separations — as an immigration deterrent. Even conservative Trump supporters have recoiled at Miller's methods, while federal courts have repeatedly rejected them.
If Trump and Miller's earlier get-tough measures didn't pass muster in the courts, why does Trump think Nielsen's successor would have any better luck satisfying his unrealistic demands?
Much as Trump tries to portray the problem as something that can be solved with bigger walls and meaner border enforcement, the longer-term solution rests in the hands of Congress. Trump has yet to present an argument persuasive enough to win substantive changes in U.S. immigration law — or even to obtain his funding request for a border wall. He couldn't do it when Republicans controlled both houses, and his chances of success pushing Miller's extremist agenda are even less likely to be successful with Democrats controlling the House.
Policy changes such as one that Nielsen's department proposed to boost by 30,000 the number of temporary H-2B visas for temporary migrant labor are a much more realistic way of addressing the economic issues that underlie most immigration issues. Businesses require avenues for low-cost immigrant labor to enter legally and fill jobs Americans won't take.
And instead of threatening to cut aid programs that help Central American governments crack down on gang violence and reform their police and judiciary systems, Trump should be working with Congress to strengthen such programs as a means of directly addressing the security problems that cause migrants to flee by the thousands.
But Trump wants tough, which means that realistic, effective and bipartisan immigration solutions probably will have to wait until someone else occupies the Oval Office.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH