- - Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The immigration challenge touches nearly every aspect of American governance and civic life. The questions of who gets into the United States, and how and whether those who do become Americans, are basic questions about who we are — and what we mean. 

Many Americans see immigration as something more than a matter of tactical points deployed mostly for partisan advantage. While the D.C. political class — joined by business elites — approach immigration from the standpoint of what America owes newcomers, there are two questions preceding that one. One is what newcomers owe America. The other is what America owes itself.

America owes itself, first and foremost, an equitable application of law and justice. In the immigration sphere, that means illegality must be treated as such — whether it’s in the realm of property theft, human life, or border crossing. That isn’t a harsh or punitive sentiment.

Indeed, last year alone, 170,000 people with criminal convictions or pending charges were removed from our country, including over 4,000 suspected gang members and 31 known or suspected terrorists. No nation has done better, historically, than America in applying the imperatives of mercy and refuge to the world’s persecuted and impoverished: America is home to one in five of all international migrants globally, nearly four times as many as the next ranked country, despite being home to just four percent of the world’s population. It is, ultimately, a deeply compassionate stance: no one, powerful or humble, is above or beyond the law. 

This is common sense to ordinary Americans. In D.C.-elite circles, equal application of law and justice to illegal immigrants was received as something monstrous — which tells you something about D.C. elites. 

Similarly, newcomers owe America respect, as our guests and residents. That doesn’t mean shedding their language, religion, customs, traditions, or values. America is big enough to accommodate all those things — and we know that American society is attractive and strong enough to assimilate any community. It does mean adhering to law and respecting the civic fabric that makes our country a desirable destination in the first place. This too is common sense to ordinary Americans. 

As for that third question following the other two — what America owes immigrants — the answer is simple. We owe them a full and effective defense of America. Preserving our country is, after all, as much for their sake as ours. 

You might call this agenda “America First.”

I saw firsthand the Trump Administration’s work to apply these principles to immigration policy in my time at the White House. Trump prosecuted more cases of illegal entry in recent history, deporting more than 16,000 gang members and arresting more than 2,000 members of MS-13. I saw the challenges posed by myriad challenges — by policymakers determined to block effective reform, by a migrant surge driven by crime and collapse, and by Mexican and Central American governments more beholden to crime cartels than to their own people.

These are big challenges, and they aren’t over. But they are not too big for an America resolved to act first in its own interest. If I could recommend one thing to the Biden Administration team now, I would tell them: proceed from your predecessor’s principles — and do more.

I know they’re already thinking along those same lines, though they may never admit it. Quietly, after a disastrous quarter that has seen our southern border nearly overrun—apprehensions of illegal immigrants skyrocketed 123 percent between January and March to their highest level in nearly two decades— they’re talking about holding Mexico accountable — and building a wall. To paraphrase President Reagan, you can get anything done if you don’t mind who gets the credit. 

But we know. 

• Brooke Rollins is President and Chief Executive Officer at the America First Policy Institute and previously served as an Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council under the Trump administration.

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