During Donald Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, the biggest surprise came when he spoke about immigration. He said, “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible…I believe that Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.” This sentiment came on the heels of off-the-record comments he apparently made earlier that day at a lunch with television anchors indicating he might be willing to soften on some of his harsher campaign rhetoric. Now, immigration reform is a good idea. Our current immigration laws are unenforceable, and when extended to their logical conclusions would lead to inhumane outcomes. Immigration reform is also probably something Trump could plausibly get done. A bi-partisan base for immigration reform exists, and Congress could, in theory, come up with a bargain on the contentious issue. The problem is, immigration reform – at least, the reforms most people associate with immigration reform – is at odds with everything Trump has done regarding immigration so far. Until Tuesday, it was at odds with everything he has said about immigration (in fact, it’s at odds with other statements he made during his speech). Perhaps most importantly, it is at odds with the stated beliefs of a large and powerful contingent within his administration.
Trump is strikingly non-ideological in most areas – his statements on hallmark issues like health care, abortion, environmentalism, taxes, and so forth are contradictory and reveal no set loyalty to the right or the left. When taken together, they seem to reveal more about Trump’s habit of saying things that he thinks sound good rather than about coherent policy preferences. So it isn’t necessarily surprising that Trump would make public statements that contradict other public statements he has made. He does it all the time. On immigration, though, Trump has been consistent. Immigrants, legal and illegal, take jobs, import crime, and erode American self-identity. The government should do everything it can to stop the flow of immigrants, especially those coming from outside of Western Europe and Canada. For immigrants already here, we should ramp up deportations, and rather than pursue policies that make becoming a citizen easier, we should make it more difficult. For those who came to our country illegally a long time ago, we should not extend amnesty, as they committed a crime in coming here at all.
That was his position during the campaign, and it has guided his hand on immigration policy throughout his young Presidency. This position is not without its political downside. It isn’t that enforcing immigration laws is necessarily unpopular, but large-scale, visible deportation is. Even for the run-of-the-mill Republican voter – the kind who may have felt a little hesitant about Trump, but quickly fell in line once he became the nominee – executing a harsher immigration policy is not an animating passion. They may think a wall along the southern border is fine, or that mass deportation is a necessary, if unpleasant, extension of the law, but that’s not why many Republicans voted for him. That’s not what a lot of Republicans in Congress supported until very recently.
The most likely reason Trump has stuck so doggedly to his immigration position is he really is passionate about it. It does drive him. To him, the influx of immigrants is a very pressing, if not the most pressing, issue that has to be faced down if progress is to be made on other key areas of governance. Trump conducted his campaign with breathtaking cynicism on most issues, willing to say most anything to appeal to whatever audience he happened to be addressing, but on immigration, he was consistent and clear. Immigrants needed to be kept out, because they made our country less safe and less economically stable. Immigrants who were here illegally needed to be deported. Potential immigrants who might come here should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Trump never moderated on this, and never let it slide to the background of his platform.
Trump not given any indication since the election that he was being insincere, or that he was staking out an aggressive position from which he could retreat later to a more moderate, more broadly acceptable one. Many of his executive orders have dealt with immigration, and he has stacked his administration with people who believe as he does, that immigration poses a grave threat to the nation. These figures make up the intellectual backbone of the administration, and appear to be the ones with real sway over the policies the administration pursues. There are, of course, chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy adviser Stephen Miller. There is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a long-time hardliner on immigration. In the background, the administration has hired Julia Hahn to be special assistant to the President, and former speechwriter for George W. Bush Michael Anton as a senior national security official. All of these figures have a history of supporting stricter immigration enforcement and opposing immigration reform. The crux of this opposition is rooted the view that foreign-born residents fundamentally alter our national culture, and a fear that sustaining or increasing current levels of immigration will lead to a less safe, less conservative, and less American future.
After 9/11, deportations rose, and continued to rise into the Obama years. This was after three decades of rising immigration, both legal and illegal, to the United States. President Obama did not decrease deportations, but his administration did ultimately pursue policies that focused deportations on a narrower group of unlawful residents so that by the end of his term, illegal immigrants who had not been convicted of a crime could reasonably expect to be allowed to stay. During the first weeks of his administration, President Trump has reversed this posture. In a series of executive orders and DHS memos, the administration has put an ostensibly temporary stay on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, placed a stay on all refugees coming into the country, ordered the continued construction of the wall on the southern border, and prioritized deportation for immigrants who fit a variety of vague and far-reaching criteria. The DHS memos, in particular, were written in such a way that any immigrant here without papers can reasonably fear deportation. The memos direct ICE to focus not only on immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, but also those who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,“ including, presumably, entering the country illegally. It also includes things like driving without a license, or working under a fake social security number. The memos also include a directive to prioritize anyone who agents feel poses “a risk to public safety or national security,” a description which could potentially fit any illegal immigrant.
The language in these memos was not pulled out of thin air. It was a natural extension of Trump’s campaign promises, and fits in neatly with the public beliefs of many in his administration. Most prominent are Bannon and Miller, both of whom have explicitly endorsed the idea that harsher immigration enforcement and newer, more stringent immigration laws are the answer to many of our nation’s ills. In a 2016 interview together, Bannon asked Miller, “Isn’t the beating heart of this problem, the real beating heart of it, of what we gotta get sorted here, not illegal immigration? As horrific as that is, and it’s horrific, don’t we have a problem? We’ve looked the other way on this legal immigration that’s kind of overwhelmed the country.” Miller responded with a discussion of what he calls “immigration-on period[s]” and “immigration-off period[s].” Influxes of immigration, according to Miller, are to be “interrupted with periods of assimilation and integration.” He then points out that the number of immigration in this country has skyrocketed since 1970 (to which Bannon responds, “It’s scary. It’s scary.”) and that “there’s no precedent for this kind of growth whatsoever.” He says, “We should follow America’s history, and the history of America is that an immigration-on period is followed by an immigration-off period.”
Miller’s rise to prominence within the Trump administration was due, in large part, to his role as the intellectual backbone of Jeff Sessions’ staff. According to Bannon, “You could not get where we are today with this movement if it didn’t have a center of gravity that was intellectually coherent, and I think a ton of that was done by Senator Sessions’ staff, and Stephen Miller was at the cutting edge of that.” Sessions was among the most hardline immigration skeptics within the Senate, and he and Miller worked to kill the proposed immigration reform bill in 2013. Another former Sessions staffer, Rick Dearborn, is deputy chief-of-staff under Reince Priebus. Bannon called Sessions and his staff “the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” in the Trump administration. He said that Sessions has been at the forefront of developing “populist nation-state policies” for years. The cornerstone of these policies is, presumably, more stringent immigration policy. Deporting more undocumented immigrants and letting fewer people in preserves what Bannon, Miller, and others within the administration see as an essential American culture and character.
This anxiety surrounding immigration and its consequences was laid out most clearly by former George W. Bush speechwriter and now senior national security council official
Michael Anton in his essay, “The Flight 93 Election”. The essay, written under a pseudonym before the 2016 election argued that voting for Trump was a grave necessity, and that a failure to do so would mean the loss of America as we know it forever. One of the fundamental pieces of his argument was that Trump was the last, best hope to stem the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” Immigration continued at its current levels would mean a populace that was “more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American.” The election of Hillary Clinton would mean “a permanent electoral majority” for the Left, presumably by means of immigration reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Another figure within the administration who shares this fear is Julia Hahn, the former Breitbart reporter recently made special assistant to the President, who wrote that “the importation of Democratic-leaning voters diminishes the impact of conservative voters.” Hahn wrote about immigration policy at Breitbart, and used her reporting to highlight crimes committed by immigrants and refugees, and also to shed light on the perceived failure of Paul Ryan to address the problems raised by immigration. In one article, she wrote:
Neither Ryan nor [Hillary] Clinton have explained how importing hundreds of thousands of migrants that come from nations which may hold sentiments that are anti-women, anti-gay, anti-religious tolerance, and anti-America, benefits the United States or helps to protect our Western liberal values.
According to the Bannon/Miller/Sessions wing of the Trump administration, immigration threatens the political makeup of the country and its essential American character (implicitly White, Judeo-Christian, and culturally conservative). The solution is ramped-up enforcement of our current laws as well as new laws that slow the influx of legal immigrants.
It is difficult to see how Trump, whose campaign was built on hard-line immigration policy and whose administration is stocked with hard-line immigration skeptics, could suddenly pivot to a more moderate immigration policy. Such a reversal may make sense politically and policy-wise, but would require Trump to flip on some of the promises he was most adamant about during the campaign, and it would also mean going against some of the strongest allies within his administration. Unlike Reince Priebus, James Mattis, or H.R. McMaster, the Bannon/Miller/Sessions wing of the administration is staffed with people who have been loyal to Trump from very early in his campaign. They did not waver; they did not coalesce around him out of mere loyalty to the Republican party or out of some larger sense of public duty. They supported Trump because they believed his ideas – particularly his ideas on immigration policy, which were outside mainstream Republican thinking – were good. These are the people he’d have to turn on. Of course, Trump has a long history of betraying people who put their trust in him, but he also has a long history of surrounding himself with people who support him without reservation. Don’t expect him to moderate on immigration; everything he has done so far indicates he’s committed to the ideas on which he built his campaign. They are ideas that matter to this administration.