COMMENTARY: When it comes to immigrants, what part of ‘legal’ does Trump not understand?


Never mind the undocumented. Donald Trump has a terribly complicated relationship with legal immigrants.

I’m not talking about the fact that he keeps marrying them, or that his in-laws — legal immigrants Viktor and Amalija Knavs — were sponsored for U.S. citizenship by their daughter, first lady Melania Trump.

And to think, Trump wants to end this kind of “chain migration” and replace it with a merit system that values education and skills. He may be on to something.

What’s complicated is that, to borrow a phrase, Trump was in favor of legal immigration before he was against it. And boy, now he is really against it. In fact, he seems determined to punish anyone who dares come to the United States — even if they come legally.

You’ve seen how hideously the Trump administration treats would-be refugees from Central America who play by the rules by walking up to the U.S.-Mexico border and turning themselves in to U.S. authorities. Some had their children snatched from them before being deported back home, and some of these kids remain in U.S. detention facilities.

Remember when Republicans were the party of family values?

Now the Trump administration is picking on legal immigrants who are already living in the United States, the vast majority of whom work and pay taxes. According to NBC News, the administration is hatching a proposal that would make it harder for these folks to become U.S. citizens or get green cards if at some point they relied on any sort of public-welfare program.

This scheme would reportedly represent the biggest change in how the United States handles legal immigration in several decades, and it seems to be part of the master plan devised by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller to reduce legal immigration.

What an insane idea. This country has a lot of problems, but legal immigration is not on the list. We tell people to play by the rules, then we change the rules?

A recent Gallup poll asked respondents: “Do you think legal immigration is a good thing or a bad thing for this country today?”

Eighty-four percent said it was good; only 13 percent said it was bad.

Presumably, the 13 percent includes Laura Ingraham. The Fox News host recently suggested that the country was being ruined by “massive demographic changes” fueled by immigration — both illegal and legal. Later, under a hail of criticism, she offered a lame explanation that what she really cares about is securing the border, preserving the rule of law and ensuring that future immigration is merit-based.

Baloney. None of those GOP talking points has anything to do with “massive demographic changes.” So why did she use those code words? I think it’s because she really believes the country would be better off with fewer immigrants, no matter their legal status.

Nativists like Ingraham have a problem with poor, uneducated, low-skilled immigrants who come illegally from Mexico. But they also have a problem with middle-class, educated, highly skilled immigrants who come legally from India, China or Brazil. How long before people realize that nativists are the problem?

Meanwhile, Trump didn’t always have a beef with legal immigrants. He was once kinder and gentler toward them. While running for president, Trump promised a “big beautiful wall.” But he also said he wanted to put a “big, fat, beautiful open door” in that wall so that people could come legally.

In May 2017, The Economist interviewed Trump and asked him if he wanted to cut the number of legal immigrants who come to the United States.

“Oh legal, no, no, no. I want people to come into the country legally,” he said. “But I want people to come in on merit. I want to go to a merit-based system.”

The interviewer pointed out that, even under a merit system, the overall number of legal immigrants could be just as high as it is now. So, he asked Trump again if he wanted to reduce the number of legal immigrants.

“Oh yeah, no, no, no, no, we want people coming in legally. No, very strongly,” Trump said.

So much for that. Imagine the practical effect of Trump’s policies toward legal immigrants. The door keeps getting smaller, thinner, less beautiful and less open.

Ignore the spin. This isn’t about border security, or rule of law, or the merit system. By going after legal immigrants, Trump isn’t protecting America. He’s missing the whole point of America.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email is ruben@rubennavarrette. com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available on apps.