Despite many errors, Trump has a fair immigration plan

SAN DIEGO — Judging from the most memorable line in President Trump’s first State of the Union address, it turns out that “Americans are dreamers, too.”

As Trump sees it, it’s his duty — and that of Congress — to “defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream.” All by keeping out immigrants.

Co-opting the phrase “dreamer” and applying it to Americans was a slick move. It was also a cheap pandering pitch to folks who think that those undocumented young people — who pop up on television and get invited to attend the State of the Union — are having all the fun. In fact, you might say that they’re living the dream.

Here I thought that many Americans were free to live their own version of the American Dream because they rely on illegal immigrants to do their household chores at cut rates. When people hire illegal immigrants, or use goods and services produced by companies that hire them, they owe part of their standard of living to illegal immigration.

The president doesn’t agree. Yet he has repeatedly shown that — while immigration is his signature issue — he doesn’t understand the subject.

Trump proved that again Tuesday night when he demanded an end to what he calls “chain migration” — a policy that worries many on the cultural right who think there are too many Latinos in the United States. As Trump put it — to groans from lawmakers — “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”

That’s a lie. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many immigration lawyers who have assured me that there are only two viable categories for immigrants who have become U.S. citizens to bring in relatives. The first is spouses and children. The second is siblings and parents. And that’s about it. So much for “distant relatives.”

The president is also wrong that the main purpose of the U.S. immigration system is to serve “the best interests of American workers and American families.” The current setup, according to the president, allows for “millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.”

Not so. American workers shouldn’t look to government to protect them from competition just because they’re afraid that — without government intervention — they would lose a head-to-head contest. Besides, those jobs don’t belong to the “poorest Americans” but rather to anyone who can claim them.

The president also incorrectly believes that America’s borders are “open” and that this allows “drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.” Maybe the U.S.-Canadian border is open, but the U.S.-Mexico border is militarized and fortified. There are walls, fences, sensors, armed guards, checkpoints, cameras, even drones. Is this what Trump means by “open”?

Finally, what would a Trump speech be without a gratuitous reference to MS-13? The Salvadoran street gang is the Trump era’s version of Willie Horton, the African-American rapist and murderer who entered the political lexicon in the 1988 presidential race when Republicans used Horton to bludgeon Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Trump’s default to MS-13 as a symbol of the crimes committed by Latino immigrants is just another cynical call out to fear.

Yet Trump has done one thing right with regard to immigration: He has come up with a fair and generous deal that deserved more of a hearing than it was given by the Democratic leaders who quickly came out against it.

And why did that happen?

It’s all politics. It’s because the deal comes from Trump, and Democrats don’t want to help his agenda along, give him any wins, or help him get the credit for giving 1.8 million Dreamers a path to citizenship. It’s because Democrats never really cared about Dreamers as much as they claimed. And it’s because Trump’s accommodation for the undocumented gets in the way of Democratic attempts to demonize the president, and the GOP, as “racist” and anti-immigrant.

You see, Democrats also have a dream. They aspire to get something for nothing. They want the votes of Latinos without the nuisance of actually earning them.

Trump challenges all that — and, in the process, upends the entire immigration debate.