The Slatest

Why We’re Stuck in a Never-Ending Border “Crisis”

Trump, in the foreground and wearing a suit, speaks as Nielsen watches in a vest and sunglasses.
Donald Trump and outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in Calexico, California on Friday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Insider reports have now presented a consensus explanation for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s sudden Saturday resignation: Nielsen, it seems, was forced out because Donald Trump blamed her for the persistence of undocumented border crossings and resented her for not wanting to help him institute potentially illegal measures to stem the flow.

Now, you might be asking yourself: Didn’t we just get done with an extended news cycle related to Trump’s impetuous and legally dubious demands for some sort of border-related crackdown? And the answer is yes, the president shut down parts of the government for more than a month this winter because Congress wouldn’t fund his famous wall, then came up with a plan to pay for the wall via a controversial national emergency declaration instead. (That declaration is currently being challenged in court.) Before that, in the summer of 2018, Trump’s administration instituted a family separation policy at the border that caused a nationwide furor before being halted by a judge on due process grounds. And before that, in the first days of his term, Trump instituted a ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries that was likewise struck down by courts. (A later, more limited revision of the ban was eventually upheld.)

If there’s a through line to Trump’s wild, news-overload presidency, it’s this: Sooner or later, whatever his administration says about how it wants to use its time, the president’s attention is going to drift back to the idea that an immigrant group is invading or infiltrating the U.S.

The curious thing about this real-life Groundhog Day–but-it’s-not-funny is that it has not been a winning strategy for Trump. The Muslim ban coincided with the early plummeting of his approval rating, which took another dip during the recent wall-motivated shutdown. Family separation polled poorly, and it preceded midterm elections that went badly for Republicans even after Trump sent troops to the border in October in a stunt precipitated by the “migrant caravan.” His emergency declaration actually triggered a significant number of Senate Republicans to vote against him, something we’ve rarely seen during his time in office. If the past is any guide, Trump’s rumored plan to close the El Paso port of entry and separate adults from their children even if they arrive in the U.S. legally will not make him more popular with Republicans in Congress or Americans as a whole.

So why does he do it? It seems, given the available reporting, that there are several reasons. One is Stephen Miller—a campaign speechwriter turned senior presidential adviser and one of the only individuals not related to Trump by blood or marriage who’s maintained a top White House role since the inauguration. Miller, who is said to have pushed for Nielsen to leave, is the longest-surviving Rasputin of the more high-profile figures who’ve had their time at Trump’s right hand—Roger Stone, Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and John Kelly among them.

The president’s other policy initiatives might have felt disjointed because he can’t retain other staffers for more than six months—but Miller, as my colleague Dahlia Lithwick has observed, has kept himself in Trump’s good graces by staying behind the scenes and maintaining a singular focus on punitive, white nationalist–adjacent immigration policies that speak directly to the president’s political id. That id in turn is maintained and fueled by Fox News, which the president watches all the time and whose most prominent hosts long ago established a business model that depends on perpetually portraying the U.S. as being under attack. At the moment, Fox personalities are literally using their screen time to insist directly to the president that he should respond to Central American immigration by closing ports of entry.

Trump also reportedly fixates on immigration because he believes he won the 2016 election by being an inflammatory hard-liner on the issue, leading chants about a border wall at every rally, etc. By his logic, he may have relatively low approval ratings right now, but the polls said he would probably lose in 2016 and he didn’t, so what do the eggheads really know anyway? What’s tricky about that belief is that he’s not necessarily wrong. And while his immigration initiatives have failed to create political momentum and frequently lead to ostensibly embarrassing losses in court—one relatively minor initiative just went down on Monday afternoon—it’s also true that nothing he’s done in office has been so offensive or ineffective as to convince his supporters to abandon him. He’s never fallen far below 40 percent in approval, and even the Republican defections on the national emergency issue were limited enough that the Senate was unable to override Trump’s declaration.

Also, media/personnel/strategic issues aside, the president has proven over and over again that he holds racist stereotypes about everyone in the world who isn’t a white European, and Central American migrants aren’t white Europeans. So there’s that.

And thus on this issue, as on so many others, we have a situation whose fundamentals will be locked in place until next November’s referendum—and perhaps longer, especially if Democratic candidates don’t ever figure out what their party wants to do about migration. Like planes spaced out to land at an airport, you can almost see the next few crises lining up one after the other already.