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Opinion | Liberals Are Wrong to Reject Trump’s Immigration Plan

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It’s an imperfect system — what policy isn’t? — but it is the reason Canadians broadly support their country’s having some of the highest rates of immigration in the world. The success of the merit-based system also permits the government to have the generous refugee and humanitarian policies that it does.

My father migrated to Canada from Pakistan in the 1970s, under the first Prime Minister Trudeau. Like many immigrants, he walked in the snow to his first job and never lost the feeling that he was incredibly privileged to be living there. Whatever “merit” he may have possessed, it was the immigrant ethos of tenacity, discipline and resourcefulness that really mattered. One of the lessons he imparted to his children was that the law had allowed us to be here and we must always respect that law.

Canada’s success story is now under threat, as it faces its own migration crisis fueled by thousands of undocumented migrants crossing over from America. Justin Trudeau has begun tightening border security as the far right continues to exploit racial anxieties.

When an immigration system becomes overburdened, even immigrants and their children can become pessimistic. I have heard Hungarian, West Indian, Pakistani and white Canadians all express frustration that others — Syrian refugees, more-recent arrivals — have jumped the line. Part of this is the very human tendency of immigrants to pull up the drawbridge after they have crossed over. Part of it is a sincere belief that the integrity of the system that brought them here should not be corrupted.

In the United States, the vicious cycle of unlawful migration and heightened xenophobia has been going on for decades. It’s what led to Mr. Trump’s election in 2016, and if Democrats cannot propose reasonable alternatives on immigration, they will lose again. No amount of multicultural sloganeering will assuage Americans’ concerns that the system is broken.

Liberals will have to propose a workable path to citizenship for the roughly 20 million undocumented migrants in the United States. They will have to propose reforms to the ruthless immigration enforcement regime that puts children into cages. Immigration courts, understaffed and with large backlogs of pending cases, will have to be funded. And liberals must keep fighting every inch of Mr. Trump’s border wall.

At the same time, the left would be wise to reset this toxic debate by agreeing to focus on highly skilled immigrants. Every immigration policy is bound to penalize and offend some people while rewarding others. But reframing the conversation in terms of merit calls Mr. Trump’s bluff. It turns the immigration issue into an argument that liberals can win. It combines compassion with common sense, which is what Americans on both the left and the right want.

America is not just a country; it’s a world. What the United States has achieved as a continental, multiracial, constitutional democracy of around 330 million diverse citizens is unprecedented in world history. It is easy to forget just how recent — and how radical — this social experiment is, and how fragile it has become. Preserving the idea of America as a nation of immigrants requires more than just compassion. It requires persuasion. That’s the challenge before us now.

Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming “Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion, and Inheritance.”

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