Immigration Restriction in the Era of Trump

President Trump tours prototypes for a new U.S.-Mexico border wall near San Diego, Calif., on March 13, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Is he reinvigorating the cause or damaging it?

Should immigration restrictionists be pleased with the Donald Trump presidency? The question might seem absurd: Having an advocate of your cause in the White House is usually good for that cause. But Trump has hardly delivered on many long-held policy goals of immigration restrictionists. His administration has not shepherded through legislation to secure the border or ramp up internal enforcement against those here illegally. It has not managed to reduce the amount of legal immigration or change the criteria under which immigrants are admitted. Immigration-policy changes under Trump have come mostly on the margins of the system, via executive action — the travel ban, the DACA rescission, and the zero-tolerance policy toward asylum seekers, as well as two prospective measures to narrow public-charge regulations and tighten refugee policy.

Even absent major policy changes, however, Trump can obviously affect American immigration politics. Whether this effect is helpful or damaging to the restrictionist cause remains an open question. One might credit the president with reinvigorating a cause that had been increasingly marginalized by American political elites. Since Trump’s initial campaign speech, he has forced immigration to the fore of American politics and done much to entrench restrictionism as the official position of the GOP. By making the issue more salient and possibly shifting the Overton window rightward, one might argue, Trump has paved the way for an eventual restrictionist victory.

On the other hand, some restrictionists have suggested Trump’s election could damage their cause over the long term. Even if Trump has brought immigration back to the fore, he may have framed the issue in a way that will tarnish restrictionism. The clumsy rollout of the travel ban or the separation of asylum-seeking families, say, might please a portion of the GOP base and have political advantages for the president himself, but such developments have also galvanized left-wing opposition and may have alienated moderate voters. The possibility seems open that Trump’s insouciance or malevolence — pick your poison — could push a critical mass of voters, activists, and political elites in the other direction.

These forces are not mutually exclusive, but a look at the landscape of immigration politics might help determine which of them is winning out. The first thing to note is that public opinion has turned against Trump’s position on immigration since he ran for president. Public-opinion polls on immigration are notoriously susceptible to framing effects, but certain metrics that have been tracked continuously for years can help identify trends. In June, Pew found that for the first time in decades more people support raising the level of immigration (32 percent) than lowering it (24 percent), while a 38 percent plurality support keeping the level the same. Much of this shift is driven by a leftward turn among Democrats, the share of whom believe in restricting immigration has fallen sharply since 2015.

Political scientist Daniel J. Hopkins is keeping track of the shift in public opinion. Hopkins proceeds from the belief that the public acts like a “thermostat” on immigration — when the temperature is too hot or too cold, the public works to turn it in the other direction (the model is usually attributed to a paper by James Stinson on an unrelated issue). “The public tends to react by turning against the president,” Hopkins says, “and on the mass level Trump has pushed the public away from his position.” What’s more, the thermostatic response is having effects on political organization. It’s no secret that progressive organizations are enjoying rising donations and membership, and Hopkins thinks groups such as the ACLU are benefiting from the thermostatic response.

But the thermostat thesis suggests any shifts in public opinion could be temporary, as American University professor Matthew Wright explains. The hostility to Trump’s immigration approach on the mass and activist levels represents “a response to the negativity of [Trump’s] policies,” Wright says, “but there’s little evidence of a lasting shift” in American attitudes.

Both Wright and Hopkins detect changes on the elite level of politics that could leave an imprint on the debate, however. “It used to be the case that public opinion had no bearing on what anybody did on immigration,” says Wright. “Now, public opinion is immensely relevant.” Just five years ago, high-profile Republicans sought to pass a grand compromise on immigration that would have immediately granted legal status to millions of illegal immigrants in exchange for enforcement measures down the road. The bill was eventually voted on in the face of fierce opposition from conservative intellectuals and voters. In the era of Trump, enthusiasm for a “Gang of Eight”-style compromise seems nonexistent. As Wright points out, under Trump, the Republican party base is exercising increasing sway over the party’s platform.

What about immigration moderates? In a 2012 paper titled “The Hidden American Immigration Consensus,” Hopkins finds a broad-based consensus among most Americans in attitudes toward immigrants. In evaluating an immigrant’s fitness to enter the U.S., Hopkins observed, Americans seem to value “cultural and symbolic” considerations such as level of education and English-speaking ability. Americans “genuinely worry about the country’s ability to stay together,” says Hopkins. Trump’s arguments “have the potential to shift the kinds of arguments that immigration restrictionists can make.”

But if Trump occasionally stands on firm ground, his approach often departs from the soft cultural concerns that Americans value. Hopkins and Wright argue that Trump’s purported interest in “homogeneity” and the shocking outcomes generated by some of his policies are far afield from any so-called hidden consensus. If restrictionists hoped to secure political support from moderates, they say, Trump might be hurting them.

Democratic politicians, meanwhile, have begun invoking the “Abolish ICE” mantra to gain purchase among a perceived insurgency of left-wing voters. The thermostatic model might counsel that this is a temporary change. But Zachary Goldberg, a graduate student in political science at Georgia State University who is researching trends in immigration views, says that Democrats — especially white liberals — have “radicalized” on immigration. The decline of Democrats whose interests led them to take moderate positions on immigration has been ongoing, and data bear out the trend. Goldberg points to the American National Election Survey, which since 1988 has measured voter attitudes on immigration after each presidential election. From 1988 to 2012, support among white liberals for increasing immigration never exceeded 27 percent; in the 1990s, the share ranged between 4 and 13 percent. But in 2016, the figure jumped 15 percentage points to 38 percent. By 2016, the share of white liberals who want to let unauthorized immigrants stay in the country was at 20 percent, an all-time high and a doubling of the 2012 level.

How much of this owes to Trump, and how much of it is a product of broader sociopolitical changes? “Taking a stand and being pro-immigration is one way to show your opposition to Trump, to show yourself to be an open-minded person,” Goldberg says. But his analysis also attributes the shift to broader changes in attitudes on cultural and racial issues among Democrats. Between 2012 and 2016, the share of Democrats who believed there was “a lot” or “a great deal” of discrimination against racial minorities and women shot up. In addition to pointing out high levels of racial sympathy and widespread perceptions of discrimination among Democratic respondents, Goldberg also alludes to preliminary research he is conducting that suggests feelings of guilt among white liberals and a broad-based shift in attitudes toward race help predict support for increased immigration.

If Trump’s effect on the immigration debate is to drag both parties to the poles and temporarily discourage moderates from restrictionism, odds are that no major immigration-policy changes will be on the horizon so long as he remains president. That possibility ought to concern restrictionists. Millions of unauthorized immigrants live in the country already, and the longer they establish themselves, the more wrenching it becomes to enforce the law. The current legal-immigration regime, meanwhile, allows a high number of immigrants in each year under criteria related to families rather than merit. Those who fear that changing demographics will beget a political reaction or lead to the formation of ethnic enclaves should understand that these issues are path-dependent. On some issues, sticking with the status quo represents a victory; not so for restrictionism.

Trump’s success in remaking the GOP in his image could pay dividends for restrictionists down the road. There doesn’t seem to be a broad constituency for the “Abolish ICE” message: Americans generally support some limits on immigration, while abolishing internal enforcement would in effect mean that any immigrant who managed to reach American soil could stay permanently. So a post-Trump GOP could have more success securing support for a tighter immigration system if it explicitly cast a wider net with its pitch. Other politicians might be able to sell the virtues of E-Verify and skills-based immigration in a way that doesn’t repel large swathes of moderates and galvanize a left-wing activist push. But even after Trump, the question will be whether the Trump Effect has dissipated or whether it marks a new normal.


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