No one is quite sure where Donald Trump stands on immigration anymore. More precisely, experts are trying to divine what Trump would do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the country. When he first launched his campaign, Trump proposed a “deportation force” that would, presumably, expel undocumented immigrants—and their U.S.-citizen children—from the United States. More recently, however, he has expressed some sympathy for the plight of those undocumented immigrants who stay out of trouble, have U.S.-based families, and have been here for decades. As Trump’s campaign manager puts it, Trump is “talking about being fair and humane”—whatever that might mean.

In trying to carefully walk the line between strictly enforcing current laws and being compassionate—two options which are, in fact, mutually exclusive—Trump has hinted at a “touchback provision” to any reform of immigration law that he might implement.

“Touchback” is when people living here without authorization, but who are otherwise law-abiding, have the option of returning to their home countries and applying for visas to return legally. Trump has not explained whether they would have to apply through the current system—for which the vast majority of undocumented immigrants do not qualify and which is woefully backlogged—or through a new category of visas. Nevertheless, proponents of “touchback” claim it as a way for undocumented immigrants to get in line—ignoring the fact there is no line for most of them.

There are other problems with the concept of “touchback”:

  • It is a symbolic gesture than serves no discernable purpose. Leaving the country for a short period of time and then returning doesn’t accomplish anything.
  • It likely would be a logistical nightmare. Having 11 million people moving back and forth through (mostly southwestern) ports of entry at roughly the same time could create transportation bottlenecks.
  • Many immigrants wouldn’t do it. It would needlessly provoke fear among undocumented immigrants that they might leave the country only to discover afterward that they won’t be allowed to return for some reason. As a result, many people probably would not come forward and a significant undocumented population would remain.
  • It would disrupt economies and families. “Touchback” would force people to leave first for an uncertain period of time, jeopardizing jobs and homes and separating families, rather than facilitating immigrants’ continued integration into the U.S. economy and society, which is (or should be) a central goal of any legalization program.

If Trump is leaning in the direction of immigration reform featuring a “touchback” provision of some sort, he is relying upon a tired idea that is full of logical and practical holes. A legalization program is supposed to encompass the greatest number of people possible. But “touchback” accomplishes just the opposite.

Photo by xc.