Discussions of President Trump’s immigration policies are often framed around questions about whether those policies are “working,” but all too often, “working” is implicitly defined as “keeping Trump’s base in thrall to him.” What’s discussed far less often is whether those policies are actually achieving a desirable goal, or even just the goal that Trump himself has claimed as their justification.
President Trump, who for three years has vowed to build a massive security wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, is running into his own wall on illegal immigration, which has continued to surge in recent months despite family separations and other hard-edge policies aimed at curbing the flow.
Nearly 19 months into his presidency — and three months ahead of pivotal midterm elections — the envisioned $25 billion border wall remains unfunded by lawmakers. Deportations are lagging behind peak rates under President Barack Obama, while illegal border crossings, which plummeted early in Trump’s tenure, have spiked.
And government data released Wednesday showed that the number of migrant families taken into custody along the southern border remained nearly unchanged from June to July — an indication that the Trump administration’s move to separate thousands of parents and children did little to deter others from attempting the journey.
Let’s take the last of these first. As Nick Miroff recently reported, the number of families detained at the border in July declined only slightly compared to June. Remember, the stepped-up family separations were explicitly justified on the grounds that they would deter such crossings. But that has not happened. To be clear, using these separations as a way to dissuade families — particularly asylum seekers — from trying to seek refuge in the United States is itself cruel and absurd policy. But it isn’t even succeeding in accomplishing what it was supposed to accomplish.
Meanwhile, attempted illegal border crossings — measured by arrests at the border — have also spiked this spring. As Tal Kopan recently pointed out, when such border crossings dropped off sharply early in Trump’s presidency, the White House was quick to hail this as proof of a “Trump Effect,” the idea being that Trump’s toughness was already keeping people from even daring to try to cross the border. But that effect, whatever it was, has apparently worn off, suggesting that broader international forces may matter far more in determining attempted crossings. Border arrests have dropped in the last couple months relative to earlier this spring. But, overall, they remain significantly higher than the levels were during Trump’s first year — levels that were supposed to prove his toughness is “working.”
What about the “lagging” deportations? An unnamed official told The Post that the administration is still experimenting with various crackdown techniques — such as workplace raids — that will eventually bear fruit. Even if this is so, it’s difficult to see how having more success at deportations would even constitute a policy victory. The Obama administration implemented a policy of deprioritizing the removal of longtime residents to focus more on dangerous criminals, which Trump canceled upon taking office. Realizing the goal of more rapid removal of longtime residents with ties to communities would not constitute a win for the country, and the Trump administration is falling short of that goal in any case.
One of the real goals in stepping up deportations of longtime residents is to create a climate of fear to get more people to “self deport.” But as Simon Rosenberg points out, there is no obvious evidence that this is even producing mass self-deportations, which wouldn’t even constitute a “success” if it were happening.
The larger question we need to be debating is whether we’re currently witnessing the failure of Trump’s xenophobic nationalist agenda on multiple fronts — and on its own terms. Trump’s trade war, which was also conceived out of xenophobic — and not economic — nationalism, is another case in point. Trump’s tariffs were supposed to make other countries quickly capitulate to our demands; that isn’t happening, and we’re hearing more and more stories of layoffs flowing from the resulting escalation in trade hostilities.
Beyond this, the entire point of Trump’s immigration and trade agenda was supposed to be that it would help restore greatness to parts of the country that felt they were getting cheated and left behind. The story that Trump told to the “forgotten men and women” was that they were getting ripped off by elites who were transferring their money to border-crossing migrant workers and/or shipping it abroad. Trump would set all this right with a much tougher approach to immigration and trade. Meanwhile, he justified his tax cuts showering spectacular benefits on those elites on similar grounds — it would result in an explosion of job-creating investment. This hasn’t happened, either. And more of the job growth that has taken place continues to flow to parts of the country that didn’t support him.
Where is the winning?