Journalists can’t stop arguing with President Donald Trump and his allies about immigration.
CBS’ “60 Minutes” interview with former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, which aired Sunday, offers a telling example of this phenomenon. After Bannon said Trump should have gone “full bore” and focused “on the American citizens” by immediately ending Obama-era deportation protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children ― instead of delaying the change by six months ― interviewer Charlie Rose launched into a speech.
“America was, in the eyes of so many people, and it’s what people respect America for, it is people have been able to come here, find a place, contribute to the economy,” Rose said. “That’s what immigration has been in America. And you seem to want to turn it around and stop it.”
“You couldn’t be more dead wrong,” Bannon replied. “America was built on her citizens.”
The awkward moment recalled an early August exchange between CNN’s Jim Acosta and Stephen Miller, a top White House aide, at a press briefing. Acosta asked Miller a question much like the one Rose asked Bannon: Why did the White House support a bill that would drastically cut even legal immigration?
“What you’re proposing here, what the president’s proposing here, does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration,” Acosta said. “The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer.”
Miller was incensed. The Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, he argued, doesn’t have anything to do with the monument’s meaning because it was added later. Acosta, he suggested, was unfairly associating the statue with a pro-immigration agenda.
These exchanges illustrate how Trump and his allies are changing the debate over immigration, and how reporters are racing to catch up.
The remarks by Acosta and Rose have something in common: They imply that most Americans believe immigration is a good thing that helped build the U.S., and that there’s a broad consensus in favor of legal immigration.
There’s some truth to this: 77 percent of Americans agree that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” according to a 2015 Economist/YouGov poll. Acosta is among that 77 percent: “We are a nation of immigrants,” he told HuffPost in an email. “This is not debatable. To say otherwise is to engage in revisionist history.”
More than half of Americans believe the Lazarus poem “should still apply” to U.S. immigration policy, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in August. And for most of the past three decades, presidents and members of Congress from both parties have done little to restrict legal immigration ― and repeatedly tried to create guest worker programs and paths to citizenship for undocumented people.
But the consensus surrounding legal immigration that Rose and Acosta suggest exists is exactly what Bannon, Miller, and Trump set out to challenge in the 2016 presidential campaign. Bannon’s vision of an America built “on her citizens” — not slaves, native people or women, who weren’t full citizens — and Miller’s dismissal of the Lazarus poem are part of a broader attack on the consensus view of the role of immigration and diversity in U.S. history. And, especially among Trump’s base, that consensus has eroded.
Until recently, dramatic decreases in legal immigration were never seriously on the table, and Republican presidential hopefuls were willing to consider a path to citizenship for undocumented people. Attacks on the “nation of immigrants” ideal were the stuff of white nationalists like Richard Spencer and the website Stormfront.
Trump and the Breitbart News Network — the right-wing, anti-immigration website Bannon ran before and after working in the White House — have changed all that. Immigration is extremely important to Trump’s base ― 40% of his voters cite it as one of the two most important issues facing the country, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken last week. (Just 10 percent of Hillary Clinton voters put it in that category.)
And Trump voters’ views on the subject are different from the majority of Americans: In the August HuffPost/YouGov poll, Trump supporters were split on whether the Lazarus poem’s message should still apply to immigration policy ― 39 percent said yes, 38 percent no, with 23 percent unsure. Among all respondents, the breakdown was 56 percent yes, 22 percent no, 23 percent unsure.
In the same poll, 62 percent of Trump supporters said they favor a decrease in legal immigration, compared to just 35 percent of all Americans.
Immigration issues were central to Trump’s campaign and have been one of the major battle lines of his presidency. He ran for office on a promise to build a wall on the southern border, suggested Mexican immigrants are rapists, and called at one point for banning all the world’s Muslims from even visiting the U.S. And he surrounded himself with advisers who see immigration as no less than an existential threat to the U.S.
Before Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general, he was known as one of the Senate’s fiercest immigration foes. (Sessions went on Bannon’s radio show in 2015 to offer praise for a 1924 immigration law that was designed to keep Jews, Africans, eastern and southern Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Asians from immigrating to the U.S.)
Before becoming a top White House aide, Miller served as Sessions’ speechwriter. Michael Anton, who slammed diversity as “a source of weakness, tension and disunion” and called the U.S. “originally a nation of settlers,” “not a ‘nation of immigrants’” in essays published during the campaign, is now the spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council. And Bannon, of course, was until recently one of the president’s closest advisers. (Anton and Bannon didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
These men were drawn together by common goals, and one issue was always at the fore. “The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes,” Anton wrote in a pseudonymous essay last September that the New Yorker later declared “the most cogent argument for electing Donald Trump.” Trump and his clique set out to bust that consensus.
“This is insane,” Anton wrote, referring to continued Republican (and non-Republican) support for “mass” immigration. “This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.”
In office, Trump’s first major action was to ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. He has supported legislation to dramatically restrict legal immigration, moved to end protections for undocumented people brought to America as children (unless Congress intervenes), and threatened to shut down his own government if Congress does not fund his wall.
By 44 percent to 30 percent, Trump voters said they do not want their representative in Congress to pass a new law to help undocumented young people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the September HuffPost/YouGov poll. Trump’s call on Congress to figure out a legislative solution to help the so-called Dreamers enraged supporters like Gheen, who believed his promises to immediately end DACA and strictly enforce existing immigration laws.
“He’s losing base supporters,” Gheen said. “That’s not something the media could do to him, not something Democrats could do to him. Donald Trump himself is betraying the base on immigration issues.”
Bannon was right to call Trump’s six-month reprieve for ending DACA a mistake, Gheen said. Trump “promised he was going to restore rules of the game and begin enforcing existing immigration laws,” Gheen said. “Now he’s calling for a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. While this may fly with gazillionaire elites, it’s not flying with populist nationalist grassroots Trump harnessed to get what he wanted. I’m loyal to the Constitution, not Donald Trump. I do believe at this point Bannon and Miller and Jeff Sessions — from what I can tell, since I don’t know them personally — they appear to be true constitutionalists.”
Trump isn’t giving the immigration restrictionists in his base everything they want. But he has made immigration restrictionism more central to his political appeal, his staffing decisions and his policy agenda than any of his recent predecessors. It’s part of what makes him, and his base, different. The press should take heed.