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Where’s Trump the negotiator when immigration reform needs him?

Updated: 
November 5, 2017 - 12:05am

To my great surprise, President Donald Trump’s reaction to the Halloween night terrorist attack in New York made me miss the thoughtful eloquence of President George W. Bush.

Ol’ Dubya wasn’t known to be a master of oratory, most of the time, but when the world needed some words of comfort, hope and resolve after the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, he found the right words and the right attitude to get the job done.

He stood with first responders on top of the New York rubble to rally the nation. He stood with Muslim American leaders to send a clear message: The enemy was not Islam but the bandits who were — and still are — trying to hijack the world’s largest religion.

President Trump, by comparison, adopted a familiar pose on the morning after Halloween: He was looking for somebody to blame.

He found what he was looking for in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump tweeted. “I want merit based.”

In a later tweet, Trump declared, “Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

That’s our president. No problem appears to be too large or complicated for him to blame on some convenient scapegoat. Still, throwing shade at your rival party’s Senate leader is a rather reckless way to begin the legislative process — especially when Schumer also agrees that the diversity lottery has to go.

That calls for a little explaining. Trump singled out Schumer as a cosponsor of the Immigration Law of 1990, passed when Schumer was a congressman. It set up the diversity visa lottery, also known as the green card lottery.

To diversify the ethnicity of legal immigrants, the program helps up to 50,000 people who are issued green cards per year from countries that have the lowest levels of immigration to the U.S.

Unfortunately, it was through that program that Sayfullo Saipov, the accused Halloween night killer, was one of 3,284 residents of Uzbekistan to be allowed to enter the United States in 2009. He is now charged with killing eight people and injuring more with a rented truck on a Manhattan bicycle path.

But as satisfying as his base might find Trump’s attack of his fellow New Yorker, it’s way off target. The diversity visa lottery was signed into law in 1990 by Trump’s fellow Republican President George H.W. Bush after it passed both houses of Congress by wide, bipartisan margins.

It also, ironically, was created mainly to benefit European applicants, especially from Ireland.

Schumer and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, cosponsored the 1990 bill, mainly to help legalize Irish immigrants who had overstayed their visas as they watched other ethnic groups move ahead of them in the immigration queue under the 1965 Immigration Act.

But by the time the new law went into effect in 1995, Ireland’s economic boom and other factors reduced the number of European lottery winners and raised the numbers coming from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Has Congress tried to change the program? Yes — and with Schumer’s help, too. But the effort has run into a snag, like many other major issues, in congressional gridlock.

For example, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia have introduced a bill that Trump has endorsed to replace the diversity lottery with a merit-based point system and to reduce the number of green cards issued per year.

But merit is in the eye of the beholder. Progress has been stalled by disagreements over how much to cut back green cards, if at all, and how stiff the merit-based system should be in favoring high skills, education and English proficiency.

As with other major legislation, immigration reform needs the president’s active engagement in pushing legislation through Congress. That shouldn’t be too much to ask of a president who made immigration and stronger borders the tent poles of his campaign.

Failure to get something passed now would devastate Trump’s brand as a dealmaker. But, if worse comes to worst, I’m sure he’ll find someone to blame for it.

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