The Immigration Pincer Squeezes Trump from the Left and the Right

President Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion on immigration and border security at the U.S. Border Patrol station in Calexico, Calif., April 5, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Immigration problems helped Trump win in 2016. They could defeat him in 2020.

Donald Trump has a problem heading toward his reelection campaign: immigration. He is being pressured on this issue from two sides. From the right, his signature campaign promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico amounts to his largest broken promise. If his presidency ended today, Trump’s legacy on immigration would be a massive increase in illegal entrants and a humanitarian crisis on the border itself. The mostly symbolic series of executive orders on immigration, through which Trump has tried to satisfy restrictionists, have failed to reduce illegal immigration or change the composition of immigration in the way reformers desire. In fact, while many restrictionists and reformers want higher-skilled immigration, Trump has overseen a dramatic decline in student visas. At the same time Trump’s measures have enraged immigration proponents, swelled their ranks, and potentially radicalized Democrats on the issue.

That brings us to the other half of Donald Trump’s immigration problem. The entire atmosphere around the issue of immigration has changed in four years.

It’s worth remembering the political and news climate in which Donald Trump emerged. In 2015, uncontrolled migration and its connection to disorder, disease, crime, and terror had dominated certain sections of the news. American restrictionists followed developments in Europe.

There was the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January in Paris, followed by various shootings and stabbings connected to ISIS in Belgium, Germany, and France. Late in the year there were more horrendous attacks in Paris, killing 137 people. And in the United States, Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani who had spent much of her life in Saudi Arabia, engaged in mutual radicalization with her U.S.-born husband ahead of their terroristic shooting spree in San Bernardino. In the first days of 2016, news began to dribble out that a group of refugees and migrants had participated in what seemed like a coordinated sexual assault on New Year’s Eve revelers in Cologne, Germany. One of the police reports admitted that a Syrian man picked up as a suspect demanded nice treatment because “Frau Merkel invited me.”

The messaging among restrictionists around this time was that absent-minded liberals, in their desire to be crowned humanitarians, were “keeping the doors ajar” and simply had no idea whom they were inviting in.

In 2019, the environment is much different. Donald Trump’s mix of rhetorical saber-rattling and executive orders have combined with a genuine crisis in Latin America to create a humanitarian crisis on the border. The policy of child separation has made restrictionists look absent-minded and morally indifferent in the face of real-world conditions. Instead of migrant criminals repeating Merkel’s words of welcome, the nativist terrorist who recently committed mass murder in El Paso appropriated Donald Trump’s language, describing migration as an enemy “invasion” in his crackpot manifesto. Though he disavowed Trump himself as the inspiration for his attack, it’s noteworthy that he nonetheless used Trump’s rhetoric.

Today it’s nativism rather than uncontrolled migration that is prominently associated with disorder, lawlessness, and terror. Voters may want a total and complete shutdown of restrictionist executive orders until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

The change in events coincides with a change in perception and opinion, at least if we believe public surveys. At The Atlantic, David Graham recently looked at public-opinion polling from Reuters and found that, as is somewhat typical, the electorate has begun polarizing against views they associate with the incumbent president:

Among the details, the number of whites who say that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage” has sunk nine points since last August. The percentages of whites, and white Republicans, who strongly agree that “white people are currently under attack in this country” have each dropped by roughly 25 points from the same time two years ago.

As those trends are felt by activists and campaigners, Democrats have moved to the left on immigration, led by an avant-garde among white upwardly mobile progressives and media members. In the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sometimes feuded about who would be tougher on illegal immigration — denying driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and so on. Now Democratic aspirants compete to be more sympathetic and solicitous to a group they often call “undocumented Americans.” They try to outbid one another, expanding the pool eligible for amnesty, decriminalizing illegal entry, and explicitly making social benefits available to illegal immigrants and migrants.

It’s normal for the public to drift away from the incumbent’s views somewhat; Americans naturally seem to polarize away from views that seem overly empowered. But the opinion pincer is closing in on Donald Trump on immigration. He has failed to deliver signature promises to restrictionists, and his choices have arguably contributed to an increase in illegal crossings. He’s polarized opinion against restrictionism at the same time that crime and disorder have become more associated with nativism and white nationalism, and less associated with Islamic extremism and uncontrolled migration.

The simultaneous disappointment for border hawks and inflammation of pro-amnesty sentiment are turning the immigration issue from one of Trump’s chief assets in 2016 to his chief liability going into reelection.

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