President Donald Trump is on the cusp of a major government shutdown fight over immigration, a confrontation from which he has repeatedly backed down despite considerable Twitter bluster. Is he prepared to win?
Immigration is one of the main reasons Trump sits in the White House today. For 10 years, the conservative base of the Republican Party has rejected amnesty proposals in whatever form they arrived, even when supported by GOP presidents. Their hero, Ronald Reagan, had accepted amnesty in exchange for tougher enforcement in 1986. The result was worse than when his successor later attempted to trade a tax increase for spending cuts.
Still, the Republican leadership wasn’t listening. The establishment and donor class initially gravitated toward Jeb Bush, who fit squarely into the family tradition on immigration (more is better). The conservative smart set preferred Marco Rubio, who was young, Hispanic, telegenic—and implicated in the failed Gang of Eight, a bipartisan pact that would have increased immigration and amounted to the 1986 amnesty on steroids.
Candidates with their fingers placed on the primary electorate’s pulse, like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, knew better. But none of them were able to connect viscerally with the base on the issue as well as Trump, even as Washington and the media were shocked by his too loose talk about rapists and other criminals flowing across the border.
Yet the results of Trump’s immigration policy have so far been mixed at best. Syndicated columnist Ann Coulter has taken to tweeting about how many miles of the border wall, a core Trump campaign promise, have been completed. The figure is always zero. Dan Drezner has noted in The Washington Post that public opinion appears to be moving against Trump on immigration.
Questions about whether immigration is good or bad shed little light on whether our current policy is what’s best for America, accepting the framing that to change that policy is to make a negative value judgment about immigrants themselves. A person who thought we needed to shift to more skills-based immigration or reduce overall annual admissions might well express a positive opinion about immigration in general. But there is at least some evidence that Trump has made the wall and decreasing immigration less popular than before he became president.
This is despite the fact that in Stephen Miller, Trump has a senior advisor who reinforces his “America First” instincts, something he is sorely lacking on foreign policy. Phasing out former president Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) while leaving intact the diversity visa lottery is perhaps the immigration equivalent of what one might fear about Trump in foreign affairs: that he would leave Afghanistan only to wage war on Iran.
Trump has helped move the Overton window on immigration. While negotiating a potential DACA deal earlier this year, restrictionist voices had a place at the table. Under George W. Bush or any Democratic president, the talks would have been between immigration expansionist Republicans and Democrats. Trump has endorsed the RAISE Act, the first reform measure to lower immigration that has received mainstream attention since Barbara Jordan’s commission in the 1990s, which in the main polls well.
Yet Trump’s immigration policy is mostly associated with a series of PR disasters—the botched travel ban rollout, the family separation debacle, “shithole countries”—married to relatively modest changes to the post-1965 status quo. Admitting more than 1 million immigrants a year without regard to their prospects for economic success or cultural assimilation while treating them cruelly is the worst of all possible worlds.
In speeches and tweets, Trump emphasizes the public safety and national security challenges posed by uncontrolled immigration—ISIS coming across our borders and MS-13 coming to a neighborhood near you. Those risks are hardly nonexistent, but easily overhyped. They are extreme examples of the consequences of lax enforcement and non-assimilation rather than the norm, which Trump naturally discusses in the crudest possible way while giving short shrift to the real strain continuous mass immigration puts on our shared national culture.
This is exactly how much of the Republican base talks about immigration too, stressing fairness and rule-of-law arguments against illegal immigrants as well as fears about what supposedly George Soros-funded migrant caravans might do if they reach our shores. That the problems with our current immigration policy are not limited to illegal aliens is something they only inchoately comprehend.
Drezner writes in the Post that Trump is “making liberal internationalism great again” (I urge the president to do the opposite, make American nationalism great again, in the January/February issue of TAC). His argument that Trump “is showing everyone what the counterfactual looks like, and an awfully large fraction of the public does not like what it sees” is too glib—chaos and tweetstorms do not have to be the only alternative to neoliberalism and neoconservatism. But there is a risk that rather than mainstreaming a nuanced and measured immigration restrictionism, Trump will only make approaches that differ from the Bush/Obama consensus more toxic.
Trump has made the wall the center of his immigration program. This is unfortunate, as border fencing is less important than E-Verify or reforms to family-based immigration. He has also whiffed on his best chances to fund it. Nevertheless, Trump may be emboldened by winning his last shutdown fight with Democrats, something Republicans never do, over an immigration issue (DACA) where his underlying poll numbers weren’t great. Though the White House has already signaled it might find other ways to pay for the wall in order to avoid the shutdown, a repeat has to be tempting.
Even if Trump notches such a win, he would still have a long way to go. Americans who would like to see major immigration reforms aren’t tired of winning yet. The winning hasn’t even started.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.