The Strange Paradox Of Trump's Anti-Immigrant Crusade

Mass deportation and a border wall are unpopular policies, so why are they so important to the president?

One puzzle of the Trump era is why he has staked so much political capital on anti-immigrant actions.  It was the issue that branded his campaign, and it shaped his early executive orders. Yet the public seems ever more tolerant of unauthorized immigrants.  How do these two phenomena—official animus and popular acceptance—coexist?  

The easy answer to the first of those questions is the populist appeal of “othering” for society’s ills.  The “illegals,” especially Mexicans, are ready-made targets—there’s a long history of discrimination of America’s southern neighbors.  Racism is in play, as is uneasiness with Spanish as an increasingly audible second language. The Republican base condemns any attempt to legalize unauthorized immigrants. It has long been a staple of right-wing blogs, social media, radio, and television.  

Yet the public, with relatively weak leadership by the Democratic Party, has formed broadly accepting attitudes toward these migrants. The polling statistics, which have held steady for years, are noteworthy. Support for legalization of unauthorized immigrants has consistently equaled two-thirds of the public. In early March, CNN released a nationwide poll that asked how these immigrants should be treated provided they “have been in the country for a number of years, hold a job, speak English, and are willing to pay any back taxes that they owe.” Ninety percent of the respondents said they would favor legislation to allow the immigrants to stay and apply for citizenship.

That is an astonishing number, but fairly consistent with other survey findings.  On related issues, nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose building the wall along the Mexican border.  The travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries is increasingly unpopular: a mid-March Quinnipiac University poll found more than 60 percent opposed to the ban.

The question is, then, why doesn’t such overwhelming sentiment supporting legalization of unauthorized immigrants and opposing Trump’s policies prevail over Trump’s attitudes and actions? Clearly, the narrative of economic anxiety in the white working class is insufficient—that is, the issue is not “lost” jobs.  There is, as I’ve explained elsewhere, ample evidence of cultural anxiety at the core of anti-immigrant sentiment—worries about some pure, American way of life being sullied by unwanted foreigners. But the survey numbers demonstrate that even those sentiments infect only a small minority. (The one outlier, the so-called sanctuary cities that are a target of new measures by the Justice Department, have public disapproval reflecting Trump’s rhetoric.)

Consider an alternative explanation for Trump’s actions.  It’s not that the anti-immigrant crusade is popular, but that it opens the gates for other policy options. It was striking that during the Obamacare repeal fiasco, one element of the repeal effort was to deny health care benefits to unauthorized immigrants—a policy in place for years. But it signaled again how such immigrants are used for a variety of political and policy goals.  

Enhanced police powers and diminished civil liberties are examples.  Trump has repeatedly claimed that crime is at all-time highs (it’s actually quite low historically) and frequently talks about illegal immigration as a source of this crime wave.  He has created a registry to report on crimes committed by immigrants, a very public way of stigmatizing them.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this week an enormous expansion of the law enforcement effort against illegal immigration.  In fact, however, immigrants of all kinds commit a fraction of the crimes, per capita, that native-born Americans do.   But by repeating these falsehoods, Trump tries to justify new spending for border controls (including the Wall, estimated at $21-38 billion) and harsh tactics for removal by law enforcement.  

Those tactics have included sweeps that net immigrants who have committed no crimes, have jobs, and are well-integrated into their communities.  Even some Dreamers—those brought illegally into America as children—have been arrested.  Families are being broken up.  Children are missing school out of fears of being identified.  Domestic abuse and other crimes go unreported by the undocumented because they worry that any interaction with police could mean deportation.  

But the “othering” goes even further.  As the Obamacare debate shows, unauthorized immigrants are identified with fraudulent access to social services, an unsupportable charge.  None can get food stamps or financial support or Medicaid.  Yet this association not only denigrates the immigrant as a freeloader, but is also an attack on the welfare state itself.  The reason why so many Americans voted for Trump was in part because many white working class people perceived that minorities and immigrants were unfairly receiving federal benefits.  Equate “illegals” with those on welfare, and resentment toward immigrants and “the system” will result.

Another guilt-by-association has grown on the right, namely, the notion that terrorists are entering through our “open borders” using the same networks that Mexicans and other Hispanics have forged to cross into the United States. There is zero evidence of this. Likewise, the travel ban has been largely justified as an anti-terror measure, yet no one from those seven countries has committed an act of political violence in the United States.  With few exceptions, terror incidents have been committed by American-born criminals.  

All of this adds up to a feast of recrimination against Latinos and Muslims, and feeds attitudes and policies to diminish civil liberties, disparage the courts (which are often at odds with anti-immigrant policy), set loose a callous roundup of unauthorized residents, challenge entitlement programs, raise fears about crime and terrorism, and even attack the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants birthright citizenship.  Along the way, contractors building the Wall and those supplying expanded border and urban policing will be enriched.

One thing that can be said for Trump’s immigration ideology is that it’s been consistent and he has begun to fulfill campaign promises.  It seems probable that in the election “immigrants” were a proxy for other disgruntlements.  Now, as president, Trump can use that same cudgel to reach for a broad array of policy goals, even as unauthorized immigrants become more firmly ensconced in American life. It is yet another paradox of the Trump era.

John Tirman, executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, is author of Immigration and the American Backlash.