The Trump administration speaks loudly and wields a big stick on immigration. It eyes an extremely attractive opening to deliver on its promise to Make America Great Again. It looks beyond the 2018 and 2020 election cycles to a leading a once in every 40-50 year cycle in the nation’s immigration policy.
The administration’s approach to immigration restrictions is catnip to conservatives in the way that universal health insurance coverage is to liberals. The constituents in favor feel vindicated, the opponents feel disparaged and weak. Liberals are fine for expanding benefits and rights. Conservatives are fine for instilling order. Stephen Bannon and Attorney General Sessions are out to make history.
America wavers between a restrictive and permissive approach to foreign migration. It waxed permissive from the 1880s until an explicitly racist restrictive act in 1924. Lyndon Johnson extended the civil rights movement by engineering with liberal Democrats a permissive reform in 1965. Since then, Washington has been paralyzed from conveying a reputable style of leadership in goals and practical coordination, while legal and illegal immigration boomed. The public has become confused about what it wants. It appears to say that it likes immigrants but wants fewer of them.
The Trump administration in its first weeks in office showed that it learned from the Obama Administration the power of executive orders over immigration. Obama protected classes of unauthorized persons; Trump applies his discretion to bar admittance, and to expand deportations.Obama deported millions, but his deportations fitted in the narratives about him of neither supporters nor opponents. The quickly emerging narrative of this administration is more coherent, sharply defined.
Trump greatly pleases conservatives with his deportations and his entry bars. That its executive orders bypass Congressional oversight and to a lesser extent judicial interference gives flesh to his boast that only he can save the country. He is making the most of lurid images of rapist Mexicans and Muslims who practice honor killings.
Behind the narrative of law enforcement is a strategy, in a pilot now, of serious constraints on legal immigration. In the initial country ban of January 27, but missing in the replacement executive order of March 6, were instructions to Executive Branch agencies to consider in visa review “a process to evaluate the applicant’s likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society and the applicant’s ability to make contributions to the national interest.”
No executive branch in generations has formally addressed the national interest for immigration. Task forces formed in the late 1970s and in the 1990s to think through the national interest for immigration failed to make a dent on Congress.
Expect well-publicized tightening up of the nation’s temporary worker programs, which include both $12 an hour farm workers and $75,000 software engineers. Expect executive branch-sponsored reports on how immigration combines with unfair foreign competition to stymie the careers of native-born Americans.