President Trump is now in the process of revealing to the country that his agenda on the signature issue that he believes got him elected is a complete and abject failure. This was inevitable, because — and this is also being unmasked for all to see right now — that agenda rests on a foundation of lies.
We are now learning that Trump, who is in rage over the Central American migrants straggling their way through Mexico, may declare a national security emergency in order to completely close down the southern border to Central American asylum seekers.
It is perfectly legal for people to present themselves at the border and seek asylum. But according to The Post, the White House is considering an “executive order” that “would suspend that provision and bar Central Americans as a matter of national security”:
According to a draft of the proposed rule reviewed by The Washington Post, the administration argues that the president can use his authority under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to declare certain migrants ineligible for asylum because it “would be contrary to the national interest” and “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
The section is the same legal authority he invoked during the travel ban.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will go through with this or whether it will survive the courts. But here’s what we know right now: This is yet another example of Trump telling a series of big lies, and then insisting that his administration conjure up and retrofit policy to, in effect, somehow make those lies true.
Trump has manufactured a crisis
The idea that the migrant “caravan” represents an emergency for the U.S. is absurd. Estimates from Mexican authorities indicate that the caravan, which remains over 900 miles away, has already dramatically dwindled in size, and is now mostly made up of destitute families who are traveling with children and living off of food supplied by people along the way.
Indeed, the very fact that Trump has had to lie relentlessly about the caravan’s makeup — he has claimed it is infiltrated by criminals and terrorists, which is utterly false — itself neatly illustrates that it does not present the emergency he and Republicans have hyped into existence. The backdrop to this is an even bigger lie — Trump’s constant suggestion that the border is overrun by undocumented immigrant invaders. In fact, illegal crossings are substantially lower than the levels in recent years.
To turn this fake emergency into fodder for a closing campaign message, Trump and Republicans have layered additional lies on top of all those other ones: Democrats orchestrated the caravan; Democrats want to give undocumented immigrants cars and support open borders; and so on.
Trump is also set to send 1,000 troops to the border, so that in the election’s final days, the airwaves are saturated with split screen imagery: On one side, massive dark hordes making their way toward the United States. On the other, American military might marshaled by Trump to protect voters from that menace — a danger Democrats will not protect you from, because they secretly want those hordes to cross the border.
This is Trump’s Reichstag fire. Not in the sense that Trump is Hitler, but rather in the more general way this term is sometimes used: Trump is perverting imagery of a real event to create a false narrative about what is happening and why; to justify his chosen response to it; and to manipulate public opinion toward other ends. But the caravan’s existence, and Trump’s response to it, actually reveal that on his signature issue, he’s failing.
Trump’s immigration agenda is a failure
Trump’s foundational ideas are as follows: Immigration primarily poses a malicious and destructive threat to the U.S.; other countries are “sending” migrants and asylum seekers to commit crimes and take from Americans; and maximum “toughness” will deter both those countries and their undesirable outcasts from taking advantage of us.
As I’ve detailed, these ideas are also based on lies, which is why Trump’s agenda isn’t working. Trump’s child separations did not dissuade border-crossing families, because they are driven by horrific conditions at home. Trump is contemplating a renewed version of this deterrent — forcing families to choose between detention together or having children separated — but it’s not clear that’s legal. Trump has threatened to nix aid to force Central American countries to stop “sending” migrants, but that would create other diplomatic problems.
Trump’s new threat to seal off virtually all Central American asylum-seekers is tantamount to an admission of failure. Toughness and threats haven’t stopped them from coming, so Trump wants to end their admissions entirely. He wants to send in troops, but that won’t dissuade them, since many are coming to apply for asylum — that is, to surrender to authorities and ask us to grant refuge. Though troops might play a supporting role, for Trump’s purposes, all they will do is create an aura of tough dissuasion.
There are real problems with real solutions
It’s true that there are real problems here that must be contended with. While attempted illegal border crossings are indeed low in historical terms, asylum seeking, due to international factors, has exploded in recent years. This has backlogged the system. The Trump complaint is that longer wait times incentivize people to make phony asylum claims, in order to get released into the interior while waiting years for those claims to be processed (and meanwhile melt into the population).
These backlogs are a serious problem, but Trump has the prescriptions all wrong. It’s true that many asylum requests are rejected. But if the backlogs are why people make phony claims, there are ways to reorganize the immigration bureaucracy to relieve those backlogs, which would more quickly process those bad claims and reduce wait times, disincentivizing any gaming. Regardless, studies have found that many who make claims actually do want to show up for their court dates, but end up frustrated by bureaucratic confusion, another problem that is solvable, contra Trump’s demagoguery.
If we really wanted to solve these problems, we could be looking seriously at regional solutions designed to improve civil conditions in these countries. This is only complicated by Trump’s unstable threats, and would be made worse by sending troops to the border or taking the deeply inhumane step of walling off asylum seekers entirely. Restrictionists like to pretend that foes of Trump’s agenda only have open borders to offer, but they do this only to keep sensible middle-ground solutions (ones that would not realize their Holy Grail of reducing legal immigration and refugee admission levels) out of the conversation entirely.
Trump’s only real goal is to create a Reichstag fire situation for purposes of winning the midterms. This, by the way, would have another Reichstag-like effect: If Republicans do hold the House, it will further insulate Trump from accountability on many other fronts, consolidating his power. Which means we can only hope that the voters reject it decisively, ensuring it fails.