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Criminals may benefit from Trump’s policies

Soft on criminals: US President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with law enforcement officials on the MS-13 street gang and border security, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, February 6, 2018, in Washington (Photograph by Evan Vucci/AP)

Donald Trump’s immigration policy is soft on criminals and big on wasteful spending.

Critics have assailed the Administration’s cruelty for separating babies from mothers and children from families as they seek asylum across the Mexican border, and the President has been forced to back down — at least temporarily.

Yet he still thinks he can make political hay out of this misguided policy by emphasising how tough he is. “I like the issue for our election” he told a Republican rally in Nevada over the weekend. “Our issue is strong borders.”

Democrats, he said, favour “open borders” and want to “let MS-13 all over the country”.

MS-13 is a violent gang with Central American roots. An article this week by ProPublica showed that while MS-13 is extremely violent, its presence in the United States is small compared with other menacing gangs and has almost no connection to the border-crossing issue.

Democrats should reject Trump’s false narrative and point out that his policy not only has been inhumane and ineffective, but is likely to be a bonanza for gangs and drug dealers. That is because a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry does not prioritise going after the bad guys.

“The beneficiaries of Trump’s policy are drug smugglers, coyotes and gang members,” said John Sandweg, who was acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Barack Obama. “We’re burning our resources on families.”

Previous administrations generally focused their immigration enforcement on criminals and drug dealers. An e-mail surfaced last week from a San Diego Justice Department supervisor warning that the increased load of family cases diverts resources from fighting drug smuggling. The same can be said of the Trump Administration’s deportation policies, which cast a wide net instead of focusing on hardened criminals.

Fiscally conservative Republicans should see that the Trump approach is a budget buster. Keeping asylum seekers with children in family detention centres costs more than $300 a day per person. That could leave taxpayers with a $2 billion annual tab.

There are less expensive approaches. Putting an ankle bracelet on those crossing illegally while they await a hearing costs less than $5 a day; experience shows that the vast majority show up for hearings anyway.

Another way to cut costs would be to add more immigration judges to slash the lengthy and expensive case backlog; the roughly 300 judges have an average caseload of several thousand. Yet when Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, proposed to add hundreds of new immigration judges, Trump rejected the idea, suggesting that there is no need to give people a day in court.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at The Wall Street Journal