The Slatest

Trump’s Weirdest Debate Response: His Answer About the “Cunning” Mexican Government Sending Criminals to the U.S.

Cunning: Donald Trump with Ben Carson and Scott Walker at the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by Fox News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena on Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Give Fox News’ Chris Wallace credit for a valiant attempt Thursday night to get Donald Trump to back up his claim that the Mexican government is intentionally sending criminals into the United States.

In an NBC interview last month, Trump claimed that “the Mexican government forces many bad people into our country, because they’re smart. They’re smarter than our leaders.” When he was first asked to present his evidence for the claim during the first prime-time Republican debate, Trump deflected, dubiously claiming, “if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris.” When Wallace persisted in demanding evidence, here’s what he got from the Donald:

Border Patrol, people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening. Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them. Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what is happening whether you like it or not.

To get the obvious out of the way, this is ridiculous. Even the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, the influential anti-immigration think tank derided by some liberal critics as a hate group, dismissed the notion when contacted by PolitiFact.

Trump’s visions of Mexican masterminds outwitting the dummies in Washington is also a little odd given that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government is currently being pilloried at home for its handling of the country’s security situation, particularly after the country’s most famous criminal was able to escape from prison with relative ease for a second time. If Mexico’s leaders are so smart, sharp, and cunning when it comes to dealing with the country’s criminal violence, it would probably come as news to most Mexicans.

Trump’s theory sounds somewhat reminiscent of the real 1980 incident in which Fidel Castro’s government allowed hundreds of criminals and mentally ill people to travel to the U.S. during a mass emigration known as the Mariel boatlift in order to embarrass Washington. (Maybe he recently rewatched Scarface or something?) He seems to be suggesting something more long-term, though, and, again, he has no evidence for this preposterous theory.

Trump’s claim also ignores a few things, such as the fact that the number of unauthorized immigrants—or “illegals” as they were repeatedly referred to during the Fox News debate—in the United States has remained stable and the number of Mexican immigrants has declined. Numerous studies have also shown that immigrants, legal or illegal, are less likely to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated than native-born Americans. Also, as Sen. Marco Rubio correctly pointed out last night, unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. increasingly come not from Mexico, but from Central American countries.

There are better-thought-out versions of Trump’s theory. Last year the conservative media took note of a border agreement between Guatemala and Mexico that would add more checkpoints to the border but also allow Guatamalans and Belizians to stay for 72 hours in Mexico’s southern states on a temporary visitor’s card, which U.S. critics argued was an open invitation to head north to the U.S. It’s a stretch to call this an “international conspiracy to violate America’s laws and undermine our country’s sovereignty” as former presidential candidate Bob Barr did—for one thing, Mexico actually now deports more Central Americans than the U.S.—but it’s at least a real known event that Trump could have pointed to rather than his supposed sources in the Border Patrol.

Border-related conspiracy theories are nothing new on the campaign trail. In 2008, candidates repeatedly faced questions about the supposed plans for a “North American Union,” creating a common currency for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. (Ron Paul was the only one who endorsed the theory.)

Trump’s dastardly Mexican government plot has stolen the thunder from distant rival Rick Perry’s suggestion last year that an “ulterior motive” may be leading the Obama administration to intentionally allow more undocumented immigration into the United States. (Perry has evidently learned from his last presidential primary, when saying reasonable things about border security cost him at the polls.)

Trump presumably believes that America’s leaders would be too dumb to think of something like that, but both versions of the theory show an odd attachment to the idea that deliberate government policies must be driving immigration rather than immigrants themselves simply looking for economic opportunity. For conservatives, these guys seem to have remarkably little regard for the power of markets.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.