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Trump Had Big Advantage on Immigration and He’s Blowing It

Donald Trump on the campaign trail in March 2016. Credit:Windover Way Photography

The Wall Street Journal welcomes President Trump’s emerging deal with congressional Democrats, granting legal status and perhaps citizenship to the so-called Dreamers—young people illegally brought into the United States as children—in exchange for “massive border controls.” The Journal says, “[W]e hope Mr. Trump cuts that deal with the Democrats with few security strings attached. The benefits would be many.”

But commentator Patrick Buchanan hates the deal. “Put America and American workers first,” enjoins Buchanan. “Will any amnesty of undocumented workers do that?” They’re both right—and both wrong.

The Journal is correct in saying that the idea of legalizing the Dreamers—whose undocumented status stems from illegal entry by their parents, without any guilty action on their part—is widely supported throughout America, including among Republicans and conservatives. There is probably a greater consensus on this matter than we see on any other element of the high-voltage immigration issue. There is no point in resisting this policy concept per se, and Buchanan is wrong to ignore that.

But Buchanan is correct when he says that this deal, and Trump’s manner of negotiating it, represents a likely move toward the policy plan that stirs more civic friction and rancor than any other in the immigration debate—amnesty for the 11 million or so illegals currently residing in America. He quotes commentator Mickey Kaus, writing in the Washington Post:

[An amnesty] would have a knock-on effect. Under ‘chain migration’ rules established in 1965 [giving priority entry status to relatives of those already here]…new citizens can bring in their siblings and adult children, who can bring in their siblings and in-laws until whole villages have moved to the United States. [T]oday’s…dreamers would quickly become millions of newcomers who may well be low-skilled and who would almost certainly include the parents who brought them—the ones who in theory are at fault…There’s a reason no country has a rule that if you sneak in as a minor you’re a citizen.

Thus the Journal is wrong to ignore this collateral impact from the policy it applauds.

In 2016 Donald Trump shattered the Washington view that a national consensus was emerging on the immigration issue. That conventional wisdom, fully embraced by Republican professionals before 2016 (those convinced their party’s presidential nominee would be Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio), was that the party must do three things to win presidential elections: first, get something approaching 35 percent of the Hispanic vote; second, maintain its proportion of the white vote at around 60 percent; and, third, generate enough turnout among whites to maintain their proportion of the electorate at 74 percent or higher.

The idea was that the country’s demographics were shifting away from the old white majority, with ever larger voting blocs among Hispanics, blacks, and Asians. Hence, Republicans would have to cede the immigration issue, at least to a significant extent. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to stay competitive in presidential elections.

But Donald Trump captured the presidency even though he got only 28 percent of the Hispanic vote, merely a percentage point above Mitt Romney’s total four years earlier. He got only 57 percent of the white vote, two percentage points below Romney’s 2012 showing. And the white vote last year constituted only 71 percent of the electorate, compared to 72 percent in 2012.

Trump demonstrated that an attack on the country’s lax immigration policies of the past 30 years could pay off politically, given the angers, frustrations, and fears generated by the immigration issue within broad spectrums of the electorate. Thus, contrary to Washington’s conventional wisdom, it wasn’t necessary to embrace mass immigration in order to get elected president.

The big question now, of course, is what to do about the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. The political establishment clings to the idea of some form of amnesty as part of a “comprehensive solution” that promises secure borders as a trade-off. But this has proved incendiary to millions of Americans who remember the last time this trade-off was put forward—and promptly flouted as the flow of illegal immigrants accelerated following a major amnesty program. Hence, the conventional presidential candidates in 2016 sought to finesse the issue during last year’s campaign, hoping to deal with it in a more controlled legislative environment afterward.

Trump, in his usual crude manner, destroyed that ploy. He made clear that he saw the immigration issue not just as an economic challenge (though he certainly discussed that aspect of the issue) but also as a cultural crisis having to do with the sanctity of sovereign borders and the value in preserving the traditional American heritage. Millions of Americans perked up at the experience of hearing a politician thrust himself into the immigration thicket in such a manner.

Does anyone think that Trump could have prevailed in those crucial states that previously had been considered Democratic strongholds—particularly Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—if he had displayed the namby-pamby sensibility of his opponents on the immigration issue in 2016? Not likely.

But now this president puts himself in position to essentially cede the issue back to the Democrats and his Republican opponents, who are only too happy to force the political narrative back to the concept that the issue has been settled and Trump voters will just have to accept that old deal of amnesty and hollow promises of border security.

But the issue hasn’t been settled. And amnesty remains a particularly fast-acting brand of poison for Republican politicians. Many such politicians in Congress are going to rise up in revolt at the president’s action, and they should.

But that still begs the question: What should Trump do now, or what should he have done? He should have killed outright Barack Obama’s executive action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), giving Dreamers legal status. It was unconstitutional, a naked grab for power that rightfully belongs to Congress. He should have hammered away at the constitutional issue, which must always take precedence over favored political outcomes.

Then he should have used the leverage provided by the DACA termination to bring it back legislatively in a more palatable form, precluding by law any “chain migration” outcomes flowing from that legislative action.

Then he should have proposed a truly comprehensive immigration policy designed to rid the country of any illegals convicted of any crime at any time in the past; provide some kind of legal status (but not citizenship) to remaining illegals already in the country; reduce legal immigration to numbers more in keeping with traditional inflows (and designed to reduce the percentage of foreign born people in the country, now approaching an all-time high); alter the criteria for entry to eliminate “chain migration” and favor immigrants who clearly can make an immediate contribution to the public weal; and incorporate strong measures (including a border wall) designed to clamp down forcefully on all illegal immigration into the United States.

Trump was the only politician in America who could have proposed such a comprehensive plan and shepherded it through Congress. That’s because, based on his 2016 campaign, he was the only politician with credibility on the issue of truly protecting the U.S. border, the only one who could have spoken to cynics who believe, correctly, that the political establishment really doesn’t care all that much about protecting border sovereignty.  

Now he appears on the threshold of booting that political advantage. This isn’t the behavior of a politician who knows how to negotiate, much less how to think about the day’s political challenges with any degree of depth or dexterity.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.

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