Can right and left break out of their disastrous cycle?
Nature’s temporary solution to the crisis on the United States’southwest border is upon us, in the form of high summer temperatures that should reduce the migration rate and relieve some of the pressure on our overcrowded camps and courts. So it’s a good time to step back and assess the disastrous cycle in which our immigration policy has been caught.
The cycle started with a gap between the elite consensus on immigration — unabashedly in favor — and the public’s more conflicted attitudes, which differ depending on the day’s headlines and the wording of the polling questions. Across the first 15 years of the 21st century, too many Beltway attempts to simply impose the elite consensus set the stage for backlash, populism, Trump.
Unfortunately that backlash did not just give us a more restrictionist president. It gave us a restrictionist president who mixes ineffectiveness in legislating, incompetence in administration, and an impulse toward “toughness” as the response to every challenge — one that easily becomes a license for cruelty when a crisis hits. As it has, in the form of the wave of family migration — to which the Trumpian response has been, first,
- the formal inhumanity of the child separation policy, and since then, the
- informal inhumanity of an overwhelmed detainment system.
This inhumanity, in turn, has driven many liberals — led by the Democratic Party’s would-be nominees for president — to repudiate not only the specific evils of Trump’s approach, but the entire architecture of immigration enforcement as implemented by, well, the last Democratic president. The camps for asylum seekers must not just be made more humane; they must be closed. Deportations of non-criminal aliens must not only be limited; they must be ended. As migration rates increase exponentially, the government must respond by … decriminalizing illegal entry and extending public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
These policies are far more reckless than the old path-to-citizenship, more-guest-workers elite consensus, because they learn exactly the wrong lessons from the last five years of turbulence. We now have multiple case studies, European and American, of how in a globalized and internet-connected world migration can suddenly cascade, how easily a perceived open door can lead to a dramatic rush to enter — and then how quickly the most generous societies can find themselves retreating to enforcement and lurching toward populism.
For this cycle to break, for immigration policy to stabilize instead of whipsawing between folly and cruelty, you would need fraternal correction to happen within both the right-wing and left-wing coalitions.
On the American right, that correction ought to come from religious conservatives and their representatives, who have generally been far too blasé about the conditions in the migrant camps and the Trump administration’s moral responsibility to migrants.
Yes, these conditions reflect funding shortfalls in which Democrats as well as Trump are complicit; yes, some of the problems were also problems under Obama, and liberal partisans are only just now noticing; yes, reckless adult migrants are often responsible for putting children in peril in the first place.
But none of this absolves the United States of a basic responsibility to keep vulnerable people, children above all, in the most humane conditions possible when their detention is required. The harsh reality of border enforcement tends to breed callousness and prejudice, of the sort that pervades a recently-exposed Border Patrol Facebook group, unless someone in authority is pushing back hard against that tendency. And it’s plain that Trump’s team doesn’t regard that kind of pushback as a moral obligation, that they are either invested in the idea that cruelty might be a useful deterrent or indifferent to the conditions that visitors to the camps keep uncovering.
This is where the president’s religious supporters should be intervening, should be applying moral pressure, should be working to prove that the immigration restrictions they support can be implemented in accord with basic Christian principles. At the moment their efforts are meager, and that proof does not exist.
Then on the Democratic side, the obligation to halt the march of folly falls upon the party’s moderates, its House and Senate leaders — who behaved responsibly last week in passing the border funding bill over Ocasio-Cortezan objections — and finally on the would-be moderate trying to win the party’s nomination, Joe Biden.
Of all the questions that his leftward critics want to relitigate on the debate stage, this might be the most immediately important: Were Barack Obama’s deportation policies (which at their peak removed more people than Trump’s) immoral and un-American, a compromise with fascism that liberalism must now repudiate and permanently leave behind?
Biden has an obvious incentive to answer no, to defend as pro-immigration realism the last administration’s efforts to legalize longtime residents while also resisting migration waves.
But it’s how the party’s voters answer, and what the next Democratic president does, that will determine how fast the cycle of polarization continues turning, how wide our immigration gyre becomes.
It took all of one minute and nine seconds for President Trump to go after his predecessor on Friday — just one minute and nine seconds to re-engage in a debate that has consumed much of his own time in office over who was the better president.
It was former President Barack Obama who started the policy of separating children from their parents at the border, Mr. Trump claimed falsely, and it was Mr. Obama who had such a terrible relationship with North Korea that he was about to go to war. Mr. Obama had it easy on the economy, Mr. Trump added, but let America’s allies walk all over him.
The litany of criticisms, often distorted, are familiar, but Mr. Trump has turned increasingly to Mr. Obama in recent days as a political foil.
In part, that reflects Mr. Trump’s longstanding fixation with the former president. But it may also stem from the fact that Mr. Obama’s vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., remains the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 election.
“If you look at what we’ve done, and if you look at what we’ve straightened out, the — I call it the ‘Obama-Biden mess,’” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving Washington for a weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “We’re straightening it out.”
The president’s focus on Mr. Obama after about two and a half years in office was even more intense during a trip to Japan and South Korea last weekend, when Mr. Trump repeatedly raised the subject of his predecessor without being asked, assailing him on a variety of domestic and foreign policy fronts.
“When in a corner, Trump falls back on the only organizing principle he has, which is attacking Obama — and usually lying about it,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “I wouldn’t read anything more into it than that.”
Since 2011, when he explored running for president against Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump has had a singular obsession with the 44th president.
He repeatedly questioned Mr. Obama’s citizenship as part of the false “birther” conspiracy. As president, Mr. Obama struck back at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2011, when he roasted the reality television star as a lightweight while Mr. Trump sat grim-faced.
Since then, Mr. Trump has been determined to minimize or unravel Mr. Obama’s accomplishments, and lately has even suggested that his predecessor was behind a deep-state conspiracy with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to thwart his 2016 candidacy.
While other presidents have blamed their predecessors for various national ills — including Mr. Obama, who in his first term regularly pointed to former President George W. Bush — Mr. Trump takes it further than most.
It is less common for presidents to take on predecessors who are more popular than they are; Mr. Obama was viewed favorably by 63 percent of those surveyed by Gallup last year, while Mr. Trump’s job approval rating is 41 percent.
But Mr. Trump recognizes that his political base wanted, and still wants, someone who would be seen as fighting against Mr. Obama. Especially as Mr. Biden stumps the country on his record in the Obama administration, Mr. Trump sees a political advantage in taking down his predecessor and trying to lift himself as an outsider taking on a system he has led for over two years.
“Tell Biden that NATO has taken total advantage of him and President Obama,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “Biden didn’t know what the hell he was doing and neither did President Obama. NATO was taking advantage of — now they’re paying.”
“President Obama and Vice President Biden,” he added, “they didn’t have a clue. They got taken advantage of by China, by NATO, by every country they did business with.”
By Mr. Trump’s indictment, Mr. Obama was too soft on China’s trade abuses and too easy on NATO allies who were not spending enough on their own defense, two issues that the current president has pressed much more vigorously. Mr. Trump in recent days has also blamed Mr. Obama for a dispute with Turkey, a NATO ally, over its purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia. A former Obama aide denied that he refused to sell a Patriot system to Turkey but did object to a technology transfer Ankara demanded as part of a deal.
In leveling his criticisms at Mr. Obama, however, Mr. Trump routinely stretches the facts. As he has repeatedly, Mr. Trump insisted on Friday that had Mr. Obama remained in office, he would have gone to war with North Korea, a claim dismissed as ludicrous by the former president’s advisers.
In recent days, Mr. Trump has added a new claim — that Mr. Obama tried to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, only to be rebuffed, an assertion for which he offered no evidence.
“He called Kim Jong-un on numerous occasions to meet. President Obama wanted to meet with Kim Jong-un. And Kim Jong-un said no,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “Numerous occasions he called. And right now we have a very nice relationship.”
After Mr. Trump floated this while in Asia last weekend, Mr. Obama’s final national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, used an expletive to deny it. “At the risk of stating the obvious, this is horse-sh*t,” she wrote on Twitter, asterisk and all.
Mr. Rhodes, her deputy, repeated the denial on Friday. “There is zero truth to the claim about wanting to meet Kim,” he said. “It’s completely made up and totally incoherent with his previous claim that Obama wanted to go to war with North Korea.”
Other former Obama-era officials have publicly disputed the notion as well, including James R. Clapper Jr., who was director of national intelligence; Wendy R. Sherman, who was under secretary of state; Daniel R. Russel, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs; and Jeremy Bash, who was chief of staff at the C.I.A. and later the Pentagon.
Mr. Trump has also sought to rewrite the history of his own family separation policy at the border, telling audiences that it was Mr. Obama who started it and the current president who stopped it.
“President Obama built those cells. They were in 2014,” Mr. Trump said last weekend at a news conference in Osaka, Japan. He added, “I just say this: They had a separation policy. Right? I ended it.”
He was correct that the Obama administration built some of the detention facilities that have been at the center of the latest furor over the treatment of migrants detained at the border, but they were never meant for the long-term detention of children.
Moreover, while the Obama administration did break up families, it was relatively rare and typically in cases of doubt about the relationship between a child and an accompanying adult.
Mr. Trump’s administration announced a “zero tolerance policy” in April 2018 that resulted in nearly 3,000 children being forcibly separated from parents. After an outcry, Mr. Trump signed an executive order two months later directing officials to end the practice of family separation.
It’s generally agreed the measure of a president has to be based on the record. Then why does trump keep saying “I inherited a mess”? “A mess”? Sure … it’s Obama’s fault is it that he handed Trump a lousy economy that had created 16.5 million jobs? If you have near full employment, rising stock markets, strongest dollar in some time, rising consumer confidence, lowest uninsured percentage . . . What’s the mess he inherited?
Dow Jones going from 7,949 to 17,735 (+123%) S
& P 500 going from 683 to 2040
Unemployment down from 7.8% to 4.9%
GDP Growth up from -5.4% to 2.2%
Deficit GDP% down from 9.8% to 2.8%
Consumer Confidence up from 37.7 to 97.6
Uninsured Adults down from 18% to 11.8%
American cars sold up from 10.4m to 17.5m
This is what Trump inherited. He has created his own mess because he can’t grasp the magnitude and complexity of the job.
BREAKING: Fox News’ Shep Smith just trashed Mike Pence over the dismal conditions at the border facilities for migrants.
It may take federal officials two years to identify what could be thousands of immigrant children who were separated from their families at the southern United States border, the government said in court documents filed on Friday.
A federal judge had asked for a plan to identify these children and their families after a report from government inspectors in January revealed that the Trump administration most likely separated thousands more children from their parents than was previously believed.
.. To identify these families, the government said it would apply a statistical analysis to about 47,000 children who were referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and subsequently discharged, according to the court filing. From there, the government said it would manually review the case records of the children who appeared to have the highest probability of being part of the separated families.
Officials estimated that the process would take at least one year and potentially two. In explaining the reason for such an arduous process, the government said United States Customs and Border Protection did not collect specific data on migrant family separations before April 2018.
Lawyers representing the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
In a court filing for the government, Jonathan White, a commander with the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, wrote that identifying this group of children presented new challenges because they were already discharged from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, meaning the government “lacks access” to them.
The statistical analysis was required because manually reviewing the cases of nearly 50,000 children would “overwhelm” the office’s resources, he wrote.
Kirstjen Nielsen is the latest one out of the president’s spiraling cabinet who expressed his cruelty but wouldn’t go as far as he wanted.
There’s no reason to mourn Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure from the Department of Homeland Security. She was an immigration hard-liner working aggressively to carry out President Trump’s restrictionist agenda. She spearheaded efforts to crack down on migrants and asylum seekers. She requested military assistance at the border. She limited the number of people who can legally present for asylum at ports of entry. And she vastly increased the number of immigrants in detention.
She also carried out the president’s “zero tolerance” policy, resulting in the separation of thousands of families at our border with Mexico. Many parents are still searching for their children.
But there were limits to Nielsen’s embrace of Trump’s immigration policies. She pushed back on his demands to break the law to stop migrants from entering the country, according to The Times, and repeatedly reminded the president of “the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.”
In almost any other administration, this would be unremarkable. It simply means Nielsen took her job and its legal obligations seriously — what we would expect from any civil servant. But Trump is unusual among modern presidents for his routine elevation of people who lack that basic sense of public ethics. If regular pressure to break the law was part of Nielsen’s decision to leave the administration, then her departure illustrates how any belief in the public good, no matter how slight, is incompatible with working for this president, even if you share his views.
This was evident from previous resignations and firings. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, seemed to share the president’s skepticism of the department, carrying out an agenda meant to shrink its influence. But when Trump wanted to break the law — which, Tillerson said in an interview after leaving the administration, was “often” — Tillerson would push back, unwilling to completely subordinate himself to the president’s will. “I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
The president’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, faced similar pressures after he recused himself from any investigations related to the prospect of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. Sessions took that step after The Washington Post revealed his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign — the kind of contact he had denied during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Trump was furious, which grew into rage after the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Robert Mueller special counsel. Trump reportedly berated Sessions in the Oval Office — which the attorney general called his “most humiliating experience in decades of public life” — and complained that the recusal was “unfair.”
Trump wanted Sessions to derail the Russia investigation and protect him from scrutiny, essentially making himself above the law. And he spent much of 2018 pressuring the attorney general to do just that, either attacking him in public or cajoling him in private. Sessions, who shared Trump’s politics but not his complete contempt for the rule of law, wouldn’t budge.
The overall pattern is clear. Trump wants to act with impunity, breaking the law if he needs or even just wants to. His appointees, who share his goals but not his methods, resist. He scolds and attacks them until they resign, replacing them with loyalists who may actually bend to his will.
Rex Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, then serving as director of the C.I.A. Unlike Tillerson, who attempted to contain Trump’s worst instincts, Pompeo has been willing to say or do nearly anything to stay in Trump’s favor. It’s why he would echo the president’s widely criticized flattery of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government.
Trump says that Kevin McAleenan, until now the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, will take over for Nielsen as acting secretary of Homeland Security. Like Nielsen, McAleenan backs the president’s harsh border policies. He defended border patrol agents after they used tear gas on hundreds of migrants, including women and children, who tried to enter the United States near Tijuana, Mexico. Some attorneys say it’s unclear if Trump can elevate McAleenan, since the laws regarding succession point to under secretary for management Claire Grady as next-in-line as acting director.
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.
The new Democratic majority in Congress maps out its investigations of the Trump administration.
To avert an investigative free-for-all, Democrats decided early on that they needed to prioritize their inquiries within a basic narrative framework: How is misbehavior X endangering the health and safety of our democracy or of the American people?
Issues ranking high on Democrats’ inquiry list include the administration’s
- response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; its decisions
- not to defend the pre-existing conditions provision of Obamacare and to undermine the program by starving it of funds; its policy of
- separating migrant families at the southern border; and its
- rollback of environmental protections. Other prime lines of inquiry are
- whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stood to benefit personally from decisions he made in office,
- whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress about his efforts to add a question about citizenship to the new census — and
- pretty much every decision made so far by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Such potential maladministration may not be as buzzy as, say, exploring
- whether Mr. Trump paid hush money to former mistresses or
- underpaid his taxes by a few hundred million dollars. But it does concretely influence the health and well-being of the public.
This is not to say Mr. Trump will get a pass on his personal behavior, simply that Democrats will try to keep the focus on the bigger picture. For instance, Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns is part of his family’s sketchy financial dealings, which raise serious questions about everything from emoluments violations to inappropriate dealings with foreign interests. The crucial question isn’t whether the president has violated the law but whether he has been selling out the nation for personal gain.