Donald Trump Is the Spokesman for Restricting Immigration

That is very, very bad news if you support restricting immigration.

Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a campaign rally on Wednesday in Phoenix.

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Since the start of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign a little more than a year ago, I’ve argued to anyone who’ll listen that his noxious anti-immigration rhetoric would ultimately hurt the cause of immigration restriction. Now that Trump has delivered his long-awaited address clarifying his stance on immigration, I’m even more convinced that his candidacy will be the downfall of the cause he claims to champion.

To be totally clear, I have no idea if Trump’s speech helped his presidential prospects or not. Over the past couple of weeks, he has made a series of contradictory, sloppily improvised statements backing away from immigration policies he’s supported in the past. Now, based on the tone and content of Wednesday’s speech in Phoenix, he appears to have doubled down on the hardline positions he took at the start of his campaign. Will that help him? At least one tracking poll, sponsored by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times, has identified a bloc of non-college-educated voters who didn’t vote in 2012 but who may well vote for Trump this time around. Refusing to budge on immigration could be the key to getting this slice of the electorate to the polls. Or maybe Trump is doomed and he’s trying to build the audience for some cockamamie media venture. Who knows?

Here’s the thing: I don’t really care about Trump’s fate. I am not his butler or a child from his twelfth marriage to a model from one of Neptune’s lesser-known moons. What I do care about is the future of U.S. immigration policy, and it’s here where his shambolic campaign has been an utter own-goal disaster for the restrictionist coalition. No matter how many times Trump talks about how much he loves Hispanic immigrants who entered the country lawfully and how he wants to protect Latino workers, he’s already poisoned the well. You either believe he’s a heroic truth-teller taking on a corrupt establishment or you believe he’s a racist demagogue who will, if elected, hasten the apocalypse. That’s why, even on the off chance Trump wins in November, he will have made it harder for restrictionists to achieve their long-term goals. Undoing the damage Trump has done to restrictionism will take politicians as deft, measured, and thoughtful as Trump is, uh, not those things.

This is despite the fact that Trump has, in roundabout fashion, embraced much of the core policy agenda backed by immigration restrictionists. I am myself sympathetic to at least some of the proposals Trump championed in his Phoenix speech, though I cringe at the thought that he might be discrediting a number of perfectly sensible ideas. For years, restrictionist wonks have acknowledged that mass deportations of the kind Trump began calling for early in his campaign are impracticable. Instead, they’ve mostly coalesced around a strategy called “enforcement first” or “attrition through enforcement.” The basic idea here is that unauthorized immigrants come to the U.S. for access to job opportunities. Therefore, the best way to encourage them to return to their native countries is to enforce existing immigration laws that bar them from employment; to enforce labor laws, including minimum-wage laws and occupational health and safety standards, that employers of unauthorized immigrants often flout; and to encourage state and local authorities to work with, rather than against, immigration enforcement efforts.

Instead of granting legal status to unauthorized immigrants before stepping up enforcement, as in the comprehensive immigration reform bills backed by President Bush and President Obama, restrictionists like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies call for reversing that order of operations: strengthen enforcement and then, once certain benchmarks have been achieved, offer amnesty to unauthorized immigrants in exchange for future reductions in immigration.

Trump danced around amnesty in his Phoenix speech. In one breath he said “there was one route and only one route” to legal status for unauthorized immigrants: Go back to your native country and apply like any other aspiring immigrant. But as Byron York of the Washington Examiner observed, Trump then said that once we successfully crack down on unauthorized immigration, “we will be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those who remain.” In other words, Trump says he’s against amnesty when what he’s really for is enforcement first.

Is enforcement first a “softer” position than revving up the Donald Trump Deportation Force (uniform designs courtesy of the Ivanka Trump Collection) to round up 11 million people and boot them out of the country in two years? I mean, maybe. But the big difference here isn’t between hard and soft. It’s between “a laughable notion conjured up by someone who doesn’t understand basic facts about how immigration enforcement works” and “pretty harsh and sure to be unpopular with pro-immigration liberals but probably doable.”

Trump has moved to an enforcement-first position in the worst possible way. After all this time, he’s basically adopted the same line on unauthorized immigrants as Mitt Romney. The difference is that he’s done it after months of graceless appeals to ethnic and racial resentment that have alienated at least half of the electorate. It’s hardly surprising that at this point in 2012, Romney had a far better shot at being elected president than Trump, his support for “self-deportation” notwithstanding.

That’s one reason why I believe Trump has damaged the restrictionist cause. Had Republicans nominated a less erratic and incompetent candidate, they’d have a much better chance at achieving their legislative goals. Trump was the least likely of the major Republican presidential contenders to defeat Hillary Clinton, who has made it abundantly clear that she favors amnesty-first, immigration-increasing legislation.

Not everyone agrees that Trump is bad for restrictionism. Many restrictionists—the vast majority of them, I imagine—believe Trump has both brought needed attention to their cause and established the GOP as the restrictionist party. Similarly, some immigration expansionists fear that by demonstrating that there is a large constituency for decreasing immigration levels, Trump will make Republican lawmakers more reluctant to sign on to comprehensive immigration legislation that does the opposite.

Neither of these (closely related) arguments are crazy. Among advocates of immigration-increasing comprehensive reform, there is widespread recognition that Democrats can’t pass such legislation without at least some political cover from the congressional GOP. That is one of the reasons why the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that passed the fiscal stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, and Dodd-Frank during the first half of the Obama administration didn’t also take the opportunity to pass sweeping immigration legislation. Had Speaker Boehner managed to persuade Democrats to go along with a comprehensive bill that fudged the question of whether unauthorized immigrants granted legal status would ever have a path to citizenship, chances are the bill would have passed and we’d be looking at a big increase in immigration levels, despite the fact that rank-and-file Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the idea. In the wake of Trump, it’s hard to imagine a Speaker Ryan getting House Republicans to agree to do the same deal. (That’s assuming Republicans hold the House, which is far from guaranteed.)

While that sounds like a win for restrictionists, I’m still convinced Trump has hurt the cause more than he’s helped. Why? To meaningfully reduce immigration levels, restrictionists need to pass enforcement-first immigration legislation. To pass enforcement-first immigration legislation, they need to win over a larger number of immigrants and second-generation Americans. To win over a larger number of immigrants and second-generation Americans, they need the face of their movement to be a human who is not Donald Trump.

By contrast, all immigration expansionists need to achieve their ends is a president who supports their cause. If Clinton wins the presidency, she will of course try to revive the Gang of Eight bill. But even if a President Clinton can’t pass comprehensive immigration reform, she will have broad authority to interpret existing immigration laws in new and creative ways that would drastically increase legal immigration levels. For example, she could follow President Obama in granting “parole” to immigrants who can’t secure visas by other means. Or she could use her executive authority to change how the federal government doles out visas to the spouses and children of high-skilled workers. The list goes on.

It’s true that a restrictionist president could use executive authority to move in the opposite direction—for starters, a President Trump might reverse President Obama’s executive orders shielding broad categories of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. But without enabling legislation, a restrictionist administration would have very limited scope to reduce immigration. And the only way to pass legislation in our system of government is to get over very high hurdles in both houses of Congress.

Immigration expansionists have come close to clearing these hurdles again and again despite the fact that advocates of higher immigration levels have been outnumbered by advocates of lower levels for decades. That’s because the immigration expansion coalition includes powerful, influential, and wealthy employers, and naturalized immigrants, who all have a big stake in the outcome of the immigration debate. The immigration restriction coalition has far fewer resources at its disposal. Though there are certainly many passionate restrictionists, they’ve been outnumbered and outgunned by immigrants and second-generation Americans who see attacks on open immigration policies as attacks on their kin—not always without reason. This would be true even if Trump managed to win the White House by the skin of his teeth, which is pretty much the only conceivable way he could best Clinton. Indeed, in the unlikely event Trump wins, you can bet there will be a huge wave of permanent residents who will become naturalized citizens just so they can metaphorically punch him in the face.

One of the more consistent findings in survey research on immigration is that immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for a longer period of time have more restrictionist views than those who’ve been in the country for a shorter period. Similarly, native-born Americans tend to be more restrictionist on average than immigrants from the same ethnic group. Recently, Gallup found that while Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump 87 percent to 13 percent among foreign-born Hispanics, she leads Trump by a less-imposing 43 to 29 margin among U.S.-born Hispanics. The Pew Research Center has found that while Hispanics who primarily speak English are split 48–41 in favor of Clinton, those who are bilingual or who primarily speak Spanish favor Clinton by 80 percent to 11 percent. Given the rapid political rise of the native-born Hispanic population, restrictionists must do a better job of winning over Hispanic allies. In effect, restrictionists need to give people of recent immigrant origin “permission” to favor policies that emphasize the interests of natives and immigrants who already reside in the U.S. over those of people who want to enter the country.

How exactly can restrictionists pull this off? It should go without saying that it won’t be easy. But here’s a tip: Don’t argue that Mexico is sending the U.S. a ton of rapists and murderers. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics have their roots in Mexico, and the Mexican-origin population has quadrupled since 1980. Furthermore, Mexico is aging rapidly and growing more affluent, and there is reason to believe Mexican immigrants will represent a declining share of immigrants to the U.S. overall, whether authorized or unauthorized. There is no question Mexico has not always been an ideal partner when it comes to controlling our southern border. In his 2007 book Ex Mex, Jorge Castañeda, the former Mexican foreign minister, suggests there is far more the Mexican government could do to curb unauthorized immigration to the U.S. if it chose to do so. But demonizing Mexico and Mexican immigrants is literally the dumbest thing you could possibly do if you want to build a successful restrictionist coalition. So of course Donald Trump has spent the better part of the last year doing just that.

Not everyone will see the fact that Trump has set back restrictionism as a tragedy. Do you believe we ought to welcome more immigrants of all skill levels? Then as hurtful or rage-inducing as you might find Trump’s immigrant-bashing, you can take some small comfort in the fact that his emergence as the face of the restrictionist movement will help your cause. Henceforth, whenever anyone suggests we ought to strengthen border enforcement or reduce less-skilled immigration, you can accuse them of warmed-over Trumpism and there’s a decent chance the accusation will stick.

The flip side is that if you believe that in an age of globalization, automation, and high levels of domestic inequality, the U.S. ought to adopt a more modest and selective immigration policy, well, I have bad news for you. Whether or not you agree with every harebrained utterance that issues forth from Donald Trump’s mouth, you will have to answer for his toxic mix of ignorance, arrogance, and lazy bigotry for years to come.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.