The next few weeks will tell whether there is any chance for Congress and President Trump to come to terms on an immigration policy that makes sense. The past few months have seen far too much brinkmanship on both sides, but the recently named bipartisan congressional conference committee has real potential for a breakthrough. Its members include some of our most experienced legislators, including New York Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
If this panel can put the national interest above partisanship, there’s a path to resolving the impasse that recently left the federal government shut down for over a month. Shutdowns are never good for anyone. Important government business doesn’t get done, including work that affects the immigration crisis.
And yes, American immigration policy is in crisis, and it impacts the entire country, including Long Island. It’s estimated that over 12 million illegal immigrants are already in the U.S., and that nearly 1 million more are waiting to go through our immigration courts. This flood of immigrants has had serious impacts on Long Island. So, while another government shutdown over immigration should be avoided, this crisis must be addressed.
In the past few years, nearly 10,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement. These children have crowded into area schools, straining local education resources. At an average annual cost of over $20,000 per student, the potential impact approaches $200 million each year. That’s a big hit for Long Islanders already carrying a high property-tax burden. And that doesn’t count additional social-service costs, including Medicaid, which also fall in large part on property taxpayers.
Our unsecured southern border has also contributed to the influx of criminal gangs like MS-13 that have terrorized Long Island communities, and the flood of illegal drugs that have poisoned so many of our young people. The border wall naysayers like to point to figures showing that most drug seizures occur at ports of entry, but tons of drugs are obviously pouring through other points along the border and finding their way north. We can reasonably assume that drug smugglers will exploit the weakest, least-guarded places along the border to ship their deadly wares toward places like Long Island.
That’s why what happens at the border matters here. For years there has been bipartisan agreement that securing the border requires a comprehensive approach, including physical barriers, “smart wall” technology (sensors, drones, etc.), and more immigration agents. Presidents Bush and Obama both proposed these various tools, and Congress routinely approved the measures. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for them.
What changed? A political wall went up between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the president. Instead of seeking common ground to solve the immigration crisis, all sides dug in to hardened positions and refused to budge. Trump has been ill-served by some hard-line staffers and badgering political pundits who have painted him into a corner in immigration negotiations. He needs to show that he understands the art of the deal by offering meaningful immigration reforms, including dealing with the hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who are living in the U.S. and should be assimilated here.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi likewise needs to get off her high horse and stop saying that all border walls are somehow “immoral” and deserve no federal funding. That position might make her radical friends happy, but it defies reality. She and almost every other Democratic member of Congress have supported border wall funding, and just because the president is now asking for the same funding, the wall shouldn’t come tumbling down. We can be thankful that some more reasonable members of her party are coming around to a more middle-ground position that should be reflected in any compromise the Congressional conference committee comes up with.
And everyone in Washington needs to finally recognize that no matter how secure we try to make the border, the immigration crisis will continue unabated until we close the loophole that allows anyone to show up at that border, demand asylum and be granted entry. Some progress is being made in keeping asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border while their claims are considered, and this arrangement with Mexico needs to be strengthened.
It’s time the president and Congress stop fighting over U.S. immigration policy and fix it instead.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.