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Column: In the Political Battle Over Immigration, Trump Is Winning



For the Valley News
Thursday, December 07, 2017

Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with a slur against Mexicans who have come to the United States. Since January, the executive branch has been doggedly determined to stem immigration. Trump is succeeding, both in a ground game of executive branch actions, and in projecting a get-tough image.

National Democratic politicians have done basically little or nothing to forge an alternative vision of immigration. Their failure is likely to lead to a debacle in the 2018 congressional elections, when Trump will take one more step to remold the Republican party into an anti-immigration party intent on ending 50 years of liberal immigration.

A casual look at polls about immigration suggests that the public thinks favorably about it, and even has been more supportive recently. If Democrats, in gauging the public’s attitudes about immigration, rely only on general national polls, they might infer that the country disagrees with restrictive policies.

But it’s not as simple as that. A March 2016 Pew Research poll asked people to respond to these statements: “Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents. Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” Fifty nine percent said that immigrants strengthen the country, while 33 percent said they burden it. This was the most pro-immigration response to this question since the pollsters began posing it in 2011.

The overall positive glow of this polling result is a mirage. Pew Research also asks people, by party affiliation, their thoughts on immigration. Its latest such poll, in September 2015, revealed a sharp division between parties on the pace of immigration. Two-thirds of Republicans say immigration to the U.S. should be decreased, compared with one-third of Democrats.

Responses to other questions reveal how soft support for immigration is. Eighty-one percent of Republicans said immigrants generally want to hold on to the customs and way of life of their home country, compared with 66 percent of independents and 55 percent of Democrats.

The rhetoric of Democrats, to the extent that there is any, appears be a kind of sleepwalking, a rote restatement of the liberal arguments for a more open immigration policy that served as a platform for immigration reform long ago. That reform took place in 1965, when both forms of immigration, legal and illegal, were at far lower levels than today. Democratic politicians appear unwilling, or unable, to articulate to a country now flush with immigrants and their children why immigration should remain relatively open going forward.

The case for a liberal immigration policy can be made on grounds of morality, cold economics and our role in the world as the most heterogeneous major power. But no one of national stature is making this argument in an up-to-date way.

One step, which is long overdue, is to create a trusted source of analysis of labor market needs. It would show that in nine out of 10 cases immigrants materially help Americans to prosper. Immigrants do not just do menial jobs; they also win Nobel Prizes.

To be sure, Democratic politicians have, and will, castigate the Trump administration for its restrictive policies regarding refugees, dreamers and other vulnerable immigrant groups. But there appears to be no strong political will, much less sustained strategy, behind these castigations. Their howls may have the effect of validating in the minds of restrictionists that Trump is being successful in closing the door.

Already, the administration has severely tightened refugee inflows, raised barriers to awarding work visas, launched an aggressive campaign against sanctuary cities, equivocated about the future of dreamers, and reportedly filled top immigration jobs with immigration skeptics.

Trump’s strategy comes in three themes: law and order, jobs and civil culture. It will avoid the traps of comprehensive legislative reform and the consensus-inducing task forces of Washington.

So the administration forges ahead. The Washington Post reported on Nov. 21 that “the White House … said it had conducted a “bottom-up review of all immigration policies” and found “dangerous loopholes, outdated laws, and easily exploited vulnerabilities in our immigration system — current policies that are harming our country and our communities.”

The administration will avoid the pitfalls of large-scale raids on work sites with many undocumented workers. That tactic was tried under President George W. Bush and led to news stories about mothers of American citizens being rounded up for deportation. New actions will be more selective. In September, the federal government fined an American company $95 million for systematically hiring undocumented workers. That kind of action gets the attention of the business community without the hard-to-explain front-page stories.

And this kind of action may very well play in the 2018 congressional elections, by which time this administration will have advanced much further its agenda for a return to the restrictionist policies of the post-World War I years.

Peter Rousmaniere is a writer in Woodstock. He blogs about immigration issues at www.workingimmigrants.com. His email address is pfr@rousmaniere.com.