The Good Fight

Trump Finally Went Too Far

The reaction to family separations proved the public outrage still matters—and that attitudes on immigration are more complicated than we often think.

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s retreat on his administration’s policy of separating children of immigrants from their parents—painfully partial though it may be—is perhaps the biggest moral and political victory his opponents have been able to celebrate since he took office.

In the past months, it has, at times, truly started to feel as though nothing the president did could truly hurt him, or elicit determined opposition from ordinary Americans. But the enormous pressure which most parts of the media and of civil society brought to bear over this issue demonstrates that sustained attention to the administration’s most extreme outrages can still have a real impact on public opinion—and that even Congressional Republicans, who have long proven shamefully unwilling to stand up to him, can find the courage to act when significant parts of their own base demand it.

Though it has so far gone largely unnoticed, the last few days have also demonstrated something else: that the fronts in the fight about immigration in the United States—and across much of the western world—are much less clear-cut than commentators usually assume.

It would be tempting to characterize the high-voltage fights about immigration, integration, and refugees that have emerged over the past years in countries from Italy to Britain and from Germany to the United States as a simple clash between left and right; between the advocates of an open and of a closed society; or, most simply, between the compassionate and the bigoted. Given the evident cruelty of the policies pursued by the Trump administration, as well as the way in which immigration reform has become the object of a determined partisan fight between Democrats and Republicans, there is obviously some truth to that view. But the deeper you dig, the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that the most important split about immigration does not run between different camps—but pits competing instincts against each other within the souls of most citizens.

In some respects, residents of developed democracies in North American, Western Europe and beyond have strikingly negative views on immigration: In virtually all of these countries, the majority wants to reduce the overall volume of arrivals; is deeply concerned about the presence of undocumented immigrants; and favors stringent limits on the number of refugees. In the most recent iteration of the European Union’s “Eurobarometer,” an extensive study of public opinion across the continent, for example, immigration was the most important political concern for citizens in twenty-one out of twenty-eight EU countries; in the remaining seven, it was terrorism.

The United States and Canada have generally held more positive views about immigration. For example, the number of Americans who believe that greater diversity is a good thing is much higher than it is in any European country. But even here, most polls show that they favor restrictive changes to current practices. Americans believe that we should give much greater consideration to skills than to family ties in selecting who gets to come to the country; abolish the green card lottery; and build “a combination of physical and electronic barriers across the U.S.-Mexico border.”

The country is deeply divided about the overall level of immigration. But in virtually all polls, more Americans seek to decrease than to increase immigration. And even when they are asked whether they would like to halve current immigration levels, 48 percent favored such a drastic reduction, with 39 percent opposed.

But if the desire to curb migration and secure the border runs deep in most countries, so too does the popular revulsion at state cruelty against immigrants. In fact, while ordinary citizens have, in many countries, rebelled against traditional political elites in part because they don’t trust them to take robust measures to curb immigration, they are also surprisingly willing to punish governments that do take extreme measures to keep out refugees or illegal immigrants. In the United States, for example, four out of five Americans oppose the revocation of protections for the so-called DACA kids, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents when they were children. And according to polls taken in recent days, two out of three reject the Trump administration’s recent practice of separating parents from their children.

It is this tension between a desire to curb migration and an aversion to do so by cruel means that helps to explain the radical swings in public mood we have witnessed in country after country. In the United States, it is clear that Trump’s virulent stance against immigration has done more than just about anything else to get him elected: It was his denigration of Mexican-Americans and his promise to build a wall that set him apart from other candidates for the Republican nomination and turned out much of his base on election day. And yet, the events of the past week also make clear that some of the very same people who favor real curbs on migration, and might even cheer the idea of some kind of wall on large parts of the southern border, will not stand for the separation of children from their parents. When Trump overplayed his hand, the backlash was surprisingly broad, strong and swift.

If Trump is currently experiencing a bit of whiplash, it is a feeling with which politicians in other developed democracies are intimately familiar. In the United Kingdom, for example, Conservatives have long won elections on their promise to restrict immigration to the “tens of thousands.” Theresa May’s hardline stance as home secretary was one of the main reasons why she was popular enough to ascend to the top job in the wake of the Brexit referendum. But when it became clear that her government had tried to deport members of the so-called Windrush Generation— migrants from Commonwealth countries who had been invited to come to Britain in the wake of World War II to fill labor market shortages but never received formal documentation of their immigration status—there was massive public outrage. To appease widespread anger, May had to reverse her policy and to sack Amber Rudd, her successor as home secretary and a close political ally.

In Germany, meanwhile, Angela Merkel opened the country’s doors to refugees in the summer of 2015 in good part because so many of her compatriots found pictures of migrants drowning in the sea, or asphyxiating in the back of trucks, to be intolerable. And yet, hostility to the continued inflow of refugees has now grown so virulent amongst parts of the population that the CSU (the more conservative Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU) is threatening to depose her unless she shuts the country’s doors. While the temporal order is reversed in the German case—the current backlash is to a policy perceived as overly permissive, not overly restrictive—the basic tension it reveals between a preference for strict limits on migration and an opposition to the cruel consequences that such limits inevitably produce is very much the same.

In every one of these countries, there is of course a small group of citizens that holds consistently pro-immigrant views and is simply unconcerned about a high volume of migration or a relatively porous border. And of course there is also another group, probably a good deal bigger in much of the western world, that holds consistently anti-immigrant views, and is willing to do whatever it takes to secure the border or deport “illegals.” But most people fall into a rather more complicated middle category: They want to secure the border and to limit the number of new arrivals, whether refugees or undocumented immigrants, who reach their shores. At the same time, they are unwilling to stomach what it would take to keep them out—whether it be building a wall, staging dramatic raids on undocumented immigrants, or letting refugees drown in the sea.

The problem with this set of preferences is not so much that it is immoral as that it is impracticable. Since many people are understandably desperate to flee the violence, persecution, and poverty they experience in countries like Syria, Congo, or Honduras, they are willing to go to extreme ends to make it to a place that promises a better life. But that also means that it takes extreme measures to eliminate the incentive to cross borders, or to identify and deport those people who do.

And that is also why so many people on both sides of this debate are conspiring to sustain subtly different versions of the same noble myth: The moderate left mostly talks about avoiding cruelty while the moderate right mostly talks about keeping people out. But both pretend that it is possible to reduce the number of refugees and undocumented immigrants without stooping to the kind of cruelty and violence that most citizens will find hard to bear.

Let me be honest: I don’t know what to make of the facts I’m presenting here. Because humans have a strong desire to reduce cognitive dissonance—and editors like a clean ending to an op-ed—writers are rarely willing to admit that their preferred policies do not logically flow from their analysis of the situation. But this, in my mind, is one of those cases in which any attempt to think through the situation we face in an honest way is going to require us to bear a whole lot of cognitive dissonance.

If countries like Germany and the United States aren’t able to secure their borders effectively, far-right populists will likely continue to thrive. But to secure their borders, these countries would have to adopt measures that I, for one, find intolerable. I don’t know how to square that circle—but I do know that, to protect both our moral principles and our political institutions, we must at least acknowledge the depth of the challenge that lies ahead.