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Alfonse D'Amato

The immigration crisis needs real leadership


The past few weeks have generated a swirl of news on the seemingly never-ending issue of immigration. Not much of that news has been good, and some of the actions taken in Washington have been downright unproductive.

Let’s start with the scope of the challenge facing our country. Every day, thousands of refugees are arriving at our border with Mexico. Unlike previous waves of immigrants from Latin America — mainly working-age men seeking employment — today’s waves consist largely of mothers with young children and unaccompanied minors. They are trying to escape gang violence, government corruption and grinding poverty in their failing homelands.

The exodus of these refugees is energized by social media posts and active smuggling networks that tell them they can claim asylum if they can just make it to the U.S. border and surrender to American authorities. They are told that they need not avoid detection by American border officials, but instead should seek out those officials and invoke their “asylum rights.” Once in the U.S., the flood of refugees enters an overwhelmed American immigration adjudication system that routinely releases them. Many thousands simply disappear, and become part of our swelling illegal immigrant population.

This “catch and release” system is the product of fatally flawed U.S. immigration laws that desperately need to be changed by Congress. But the government has instead paralyzed itself in an endless contortion of partisan posturing and inaction. Neither side seems interested in addressing the problem, and both sides appear to prefer catering to their most vociferous base voters. Republicans rile up anti-immigration sentiment among Americans who fear the effects of unlimited immigration, and Democrats stir up their “open borders” voters, who oppose any tightening of federal immigration law.

This impasse has not been good for America. Here on Long Island we have witnessed firsthand the devastating human tragedy of lawless immigration. We have been hit particularly hard by members of notorious Latin American gangs like MS-13 who’ve slipped into the U.S. and found their way here. The statistics are frightening, and heartbreaking. A recently published compilation of photos of murder victims of these vicious killers drives home the point. Most were young immigrants themselves. In one particularly terrifying case, a young mother was brutally murdered by MS-13, and her 2-year-old child fatally shot in the head.

While law enforcement on Long Island has made significant progress in apprehending and convicting MS-13 gang members, the fight to stem their crime sprees has required a major commitment of financial resources and police power. And the current flood of illegals does not bode well for keeping the peace here.

At the other end of the spectrum are the millions of “Dreamers” who were brought here as young illegal immigrants, went through school and grew into law-abiding and economically productive members of society. They are caught in a legal limbo caused by the inability or unwillingness of Congress and President Trump to compromise on immigration policy.

So what have our leaders done recently to deal with this impasse? The president twisted U.S. trade policy to propose tariffs on Mexico unless it takes unspecified actions to stem the illegal immigrant flow through that country. The tariffs are now off the table, but this sounds like another out-of-bounds idea from Trump’s immigration Svengali, Stephen Miller, an ideological bomb-thrower who would rather win the political argument about immigration than solve the crisis.

And how did the House of Representatives’ Democratic leaders respond? They passed a wide-ranging amnesty measure that would legitimize the millions of illegal immigrants already here while doing nothing to close the floodgates of future illegal immigration by eliminating the gaping “catch and release” loophole.

The good news is that neither the president’s unilateral tariff proposal nor the House’s one-sided immigration amnesty bill had much support in the Republican-led Senate. It may take the more deliberative nature of the Senate to untie this legislative knot. Many senators of both parties want to address immigration responsibly, and would likely vote for a comprehensive fix that would both legalize those who are already here and tighten U.S. asylum law to help stem future illegal immigration.

But in the end, that will require Washington to put politics aside to get immigration reform done. And that likely won’t happen until after the 2020 election.

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.