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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Change immigration? Fix the laws

John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland

John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security, which has been aggressive about deporting people who are in the United States illegally. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

In the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the region encompassing Long Island and New York City saw a 31 percent jump in arrests of immigrants sought for deportations. About 77 percent had criminal convictions, but arrests of those who didn’t were up 103 percent.

The numbers, which mirror the national trend, are not an outrage. And the 40 percent drop in illegal crossings of the Southern border since the beginning of the year should be seen as a positive by both sides of the immigration debate.

People who are in this country illegally have no right to be here. People who want them gone have every right to demand they be expelled. That’s the law, in a nation of laws.

In my perfect United States, there would be more immigration. And we wouldn’t let in only people with advanced degrees or cash. I want more of those poor, hungry, tired folks yearning to be free, the ones Emma Lazarus said to welcome and Jesus Christ said to succor. Immigration laws have criminalized so many loving, decent strivers. Many come illegally because they care more about the safety and future of loved ones than immigration laws. That’s entirely reasonable.

The United States is an immensely powerful force for good. The number of people whose lives we could better, whose needs we could absorb, and whose talents and energy we could benefit from is staggeringly high. Immigrants to the United States generally don’t drive down the employment rates or wages of native-born citizens, a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded. They don’t deplete government resources as takers any more than they enrich them as taxpayers. A study from the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a non-partisan research institution, said immigration has a positive effect on local and state budgets, as well as federal coffers.

But the nation has the right to decide what its immigration rules are. When a person is killed or robbed or raped by someone here illegally, it’s almost certain the crime would not have happened had that criminal been kept out or expelled. It’s no good telling the family of such a victim that most immigrants, here legally or illegally, are law-abiding.

Brentwood and Central Islip have been wracked by a series of killings officials believe were in some cases committed by El Salvadoran members of the street gang MS-13 here illegally. Two victims were high school girls. Trump has focused attention on these killings, and promised as a candidate to get such people out of the country, and to stop others from entering. It’s a big part of what won him the White House, attracting voters who have a right to demand our laws are followed.

We should create a path to citizenship for people here illegally who have acted lawfully since arriving, and one for people brought here by their parents as children. And we should let far more people in legally, while doing a much better job of vetting and tracking them to keep out criminals, and kick out any who commit crimes before achieving permanent legal status.

Such laws would make the nation stronger and get our immigrant communities behind enforcing them. But the way to get such statutes enacted is by electing politicians who support them.

We’re seeing a lot of protests now in defense of rights that don’t exist, in support of people who aren’t allowed to be here, and against enforcement of our laws. The treatment the protesters demand, that immigrants here illegally in a variety of situations be allowed to stay and come out of the shadows, that families not be broken up, and that people contributing to our society be allowed to keep doing so, is the right way to treat people.

They just, as things stand, have no right to demand it.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.