In recent days Trump has resorted to calling in to a cable news program to explain how his threat of tariffs against Mexico resulted in a substantial win on immigration or trade policy for the United States. It’s hard to see how he accomplished his goal of pressuring Mexico to do more to end movement through its country into the U.S. Trump declared victory before a shot was fired in this war. But in the meantime Mexican officials are correcting the record: Their country has not agreed to purchase more agricultural goods, and it has resisted American demands to accept the status of a “safe third country,” which would require Central American asylum seekers to apply in Mexico if they land there before reaching the United States. As with North Korea, the president created drama in the headlines, quickly accepted the bare minimum gesture from the other side, and declared victory.
And one can see that on this issue Trump might be especially vulnerable to the man leading in the Democratic polls, Joe Biden. At a superficial level, Biden will be able to attack Trump from the right and the left on immigration. In one breath he can hit Trump’s policies for being cruel and unusual. In the next, he can point out that we still have lawlessness, chaos, at the border. In fact, he could say that, besides the policy of child separation, Trump’s legacy on immigration is a dramatic increase in illegal crossings.
And that may be enough.
Appropriately in a primary setting, Biden has been emphasizing his position on the left side of the debate, saying that undocumented immigrants are “already Americans” and calling out Trump’s policies on child separation at the border as being cruel and damaging to America’s reputation and foreign relations.
But he could easily pivot back to the center. He has been in politics long enough to be on a few sides of this issue. He could point out that he has voted for hundreds of miles of border barrier in the past. Like Trump, he connected the lack of a fence to “tons” of drugs coming over the border. In a previous run for president, in 2007 and 2008, he denounced sanctuary cities.
Researchers have uncovered video showing Biden denouncing illegals and saying, “You can build a fence 40 stories high — unless you change the dynamic in Mexico and — and you will not like this, and — punish American employers who knowingly violate the law when, in fact, they hire illegals.” Nothing that Biden says now precludes him from striking a more law-and-order note.
In fact, if he is the nominee, you can expect him to brag that the Obama administration, which he was a part of, not only pushed comprehensive reform bills but also hired more border guards and increased the number of deportations. Biden will say that Trump embarrassed the United States with Steve Bannon’s travel ban and then broke his promise on the wall.
Yes, Republicans and conservatives who are allied with the president can make a countercharge. They can show that in fact the Obama administration “juked the stats” on immigration; it changed the way deportations were counted in order to build up credibility as border hawks while trying to get an expansion of legal immigration passed. They can also point out that Obama’s policies led to the child-migration crisis. After changes in policy indicated that children may have an easier time, nearly 70,000 unaccompanied minors, and a roughly equal number of parents with young children, applied for asylum in the United States in 2014. They can point out that Congress refused to deal with him on the issue and that even his executive orders faced a wave of legal dissension, much of it spurious.
That’s all true, but what will it matter? Trump failed to build on his surprise win and get a tough immigration-reform bill done when his party had a working majority. It should have been an obvious bit of political calculation for him. He went into office with a strongly recovering domestic economy, one he would send running even hotter with his corporate-tax cuts. A strong economy will act as a strong magnet for illegal crossers. A competent political team would have worked on his core immigration promises up front, when even his own party was shocked by his victory. Instead, they implemented a travel ban in a haphazard way, seemingly because adviser Steve Bannon liked the way it riled up protest and polarized the nation. What did they get for it?
Trump made securing the border his signature promise and beat the Republican field with it. Joe Biden is in a strong position right now to argue that Trump has simply welched on the deal he made with voters.