Behind the flailing lies a potential disaster for immigration hawks.
Across the decade that preceded Donald Trump’s election, American politicians of both parties consistently tried to pass big, sweeping immigration bills that would legalize most of the country’s illegal population and increase immigration overall. These bills failed because of populist opposition, at first bipartisan (the resistance of a certain socialist senator from Vermont helped doom the 2007 effort) but increasingly simply conservative, and over time the conservative opposition developed a well-founded suspicion of Republican elites, whose plans on immigration always seemed to require ignoring their own base.
This sense of betrayal was fertile ground for Trump, who used bigotry and bluster to sell himself to immigration hawks as a Republican who wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, sell them out. You could trust him more than the Bushes and Rubios because he was willing to be disreputable, willing to give the finger to elite opinion, willing to play not only the tough guy but the bad guy. And you had to trust him, some hawks argued, because the Democrats had been radicalized on the issue and the hour was late; it was either Trump or a Californian future, in which waves of immigration transformed the entire United States into a one-party, Democratic-governed state.
But the irony was that the populist resistance had already itself been reasonably effective in achieving some of the goals that Trump promised to pursue. Over the years when bipartisan elites were seeking the grail of “comprehensive” reform, they tried to appease skeptics with various forms of border-security spending, and this spending really did gradually harden the United States-Mexico border and make it much more difficult to simply slip across. Combine this with economic and demographic change in Latin America, and by the time Trump took office, border crossings had fallen by two-thirds since the presidency of George W. Bush.
In this sense Trump was a lagging, not a leading, indicator. He represented the political triumph of an attitude that had already changed policy, albeit in piecemeal and only half-intentionally, and partially sealed the porous borders of 15 years before. And his chief proposal, the famous wall, would have been a (literal) extension of the existing border-security project rather than a radical addition.
This reality created an interesting opening, especially in Trump’s first year, for a different kind of comprehensive deal, between restrictionists feeling a little more secure in their position and immigration advocates feeling chastened by populist backlash. And there was even some evidence that the White House might be groping in this direction — toward reforms that would seek stability more than radical change, tilting the entire system away from low-skilled immigration and toward recruitment, and compromising between restrictionists and enthusiasts by trying to keep the overall immigration rate about the same.
But that possibility has evaporated because of the second irony of immigration in the Trump era. Having inherited a border situation that was somewhat better than his rhetoric of crisis suggested, Trump has now been handed an actual crisis — a wave of Central American families claiming asylum, which has returned monthly crossings to their highest levels in a decade and overwhelmed the system for handling new arrivals.
There is a sense in which this crisis vindicates immigration hawks, who warned from the late-Obama era onward that the immigration decline wasn’t necessarily permanent, that there could easily be another wave, that United States policy — particularly the Obama precedent of a tacit amnesty for child migrants — created specific incentives for families and children to come north.
But those same hawks ended up electing a president whose signature immigration policy, more walls to deter border-crossers, has proved largely ineffective in dealing with an immigration crisis created by people surrendering to Border Patrol officers and asking for asylum.
The flailing also absolves the Democratic Party, currently torn between radicalism and evasion on immigration, from actually having to propose a coherent alternative to the White House’s approach.
If this sort of crisis were happening on President Hillary Clinton’s watch, it would create all kinds of political problems for the Democrats; as it stands, they can point at the man who once boasted of Washington that “I alone can fix it” and say, well, why don’t you?
There is still some political peril here for liberals, who may be inclined to confuse the public’s distaste for Trump with a consensus for an open door (though that Vermont socialist is still willing to swat down calls for open borders). But the greater peril by far is for conservative immigration skeptics, for whom the Trump presidency is at risk of turning into a policy disaster.
The attempts to increase deportation have been real enough, but they will be evanescent should Trump lose in 2020. The attempt to legislate sustained legal-immigration cuts has conspicuously failed. Someone in the administration is making deals behind the scenes to increase visas for low-skilled guest workers — one of the policies that hawks resisted for years in “comprehensive” bills. And the longer the current border crisis goes on, the more this White House’s most important legacy may be offering evidence that even Donald Trump, even Donald Trump, can’t really stop illegal immigration when enough people get the idea to bring their kids and come.
should Trump lose in 2020. The attempt to legislate sustained legal-immigration cuts has conspicuously failed. Someone in the administration is making deals behind the scenes to increase visas for low-skilled guest workers — one of the policies that hawks resisted for years in “comprehensive” bills. And the longer the current border crisis goes on, the more this White House’s most important legacy may be offering evidence that even Donald Trump, even Donald Trump, can’t really stop illegal immigration when enough people get the idea to bring their kids and come.
For every conservative faction, supporting Trump was a gamble — do you reach for short-term victory, even though his incompetence and unfitness might cost you in the long run?
The danger for immigration hawks is that the long run has already arrived.