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Trump promised ‘very honest’ comments on immigration and then offered the opposite

President Trump blamed Democrats for problems with the U.S. immigration system on June 18, saying "the United States will not be a migrant camp." (Video: Reuters)

Following the lines Trump sketched on Twitter earlier in the morning, the president agreed that the separation policy was “horrible” — but blamed it on Democrats while railing against the inherent dangerousness of immigrants and limited utility of those who immigrate illegally.

The remarks were, well, remarkable in part because of how they started: A pledge from Trump to speak “very honestly” and “straight.” What followed wasn’t.

Here’s what he said, followed by important context that Trump skipped over.

“I’ll say it very honestly, and I’ll say it straight: Immigration is the fault — and all of the problems that we’re having, because we cannot get them to sign legislation, we cannot get them even to the negotiating table — and I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault. They’re really obstructionist, and they are obstructing.”

Notice that Trump here says “immigration” is the problem, not the family separation policy. That distinction makes his accusations against the political opposition a little more palatable, because the recent increase in family separations is entirely a function of his administration’s decision to take a harder line on immigration.

Trump has long argued that immigration laws in the United States are too weak and are a function of Democratic legislation. He has similarly long blamed Democrats on Capitol Hill for obstructing his agenda … skipping over the part about how Republicans have a majority of both the House and the Senate. Democrats can’t “sign legislation” right now, because the president — Trump — is a Republican. Neither can they pass legislation. Republicans can, and are, advancing legislation that aims to revise the immigration system.

But Trump isn’t saying that immigration is the fault of Democrats because he has decided to sidestep the issue of the moment — family separations — to take a bigger-picture approach. He’s saying that immigration is the fault of the Democrats, because he wants Americans to blame Democrats for the unpopular family separation policy. The blame, though, lies with Trump.

“The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places — we can’t allow that to happen in the United States. Not on my watch. For the rest of the world, you look at everything else that’s taking place — you pick up your newspapers this morning, and you see.”

Or you could turn on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends,” as Trump probably did, and see a segment about immigration in Germany. Trump tweeted about how “crime in Germany is way up” as a result of immigration, a claim that is incorrect, according to data from the German government.

This nebulous assertion that immigration leads to unspecified but soaring dangers comes up again a bit later on. As for not turning the U.S. into a “refugee holding facility,” Trump is correct that this won’t happen. Under his administration, refugee admissions were capped at 45,000 this fiscal year but may not hit half that number. Refugee admissions of Muslims have collapsed.

“We want safety and we want security for our country. If the Democrats would sit down instead of obstructing, we could have something done very quickly. Good for the children, good for the country, good for the world. It could take place quickly. We could have an immigration bill. We could have child separation — we’re stuck with these horrible laws; they’re horrible laws. What’s happening is so sad. It’s so sad. And it can be taken care of quickly, beautifully, and we’ll have safety. This could be something really special. It could be something, maybe even, for the world to watch, just like they’re watching our great economy, how it’s soaring? They could watch this.”

Trump’s comments were a blend of written remarks and off-the-cuff riffs. Here, he does what he didn’t do at the outset: blames Democrats for the family-separation policy.

The administration’s argument that Democrats are to blame seems to be based on the 1952 law that criminalized crossing the border while eluding immigration officials. That, combined with a legal settlement that mandated children not be held in jail-like detention facilities — a settlement that was reached under a Democratic president — results in family separations because arrested adults can’t have their children join them in detention.

What’s missing from that narrative, though, is that there’s flexibility in the implementation of enforcement that, before Trump, didn’t lead to a broad-based policy of separating children from their parents. Trump could reduce the number of children being moved to other facilities, but he chooses not to, blaming Democrats for that decision.

“We have the worst immigration laws in the entire world. Nobody has such sad, such bad — and, actually, in many cases, such horrible and tough. You see about child separation. You see what’s going on there. But just remember: A country without borders is not a country at all. We need borders. We need security. We need safety. We have to take care of our people. You take a look at the death, the destruction that’s been caused by people coming into this country without going through a process.”

Trump’s crocodile tears about family separation are made obvious here. He has, since he launched his presidential bid, railed against the country’s laws as hopelessly weak and ineffective. That’s easier to do when the public effects of draconian immigration enforcement are hidden or nonexistent. In the face of the negative media attention his administration’s policy shift has garnered, Trump is forced to argue that the existing laws are both too weak and too strong: too weak because they allow people to cross the border illegally, and too strong because they punish people for crossing the border illegally.

It can’t simultaneously be the case that we are a nation with no borders and that we have laws that protect the border to the point that they are “tough” and “horrible.”

He then returns to an argument that he first made as a candidate three years ago last Saturday: that immigrants who entered the country illegally are causing great destruction. More on that in a second.

“We want a merit-based immigration system, so that Boeing and Lockheed and all of the people, Grumman, all of the people that are here today, the heads of every company, so that you can hire people on a merit base. You know they’re coming in, they’re people that came on merit, not based on a lottery or people who snuck across the border and they could be murderers and thieves and so much else.”

Trump is highlighting defense contractors here because he was at a meeting in which they were in attendance. But the argument is one that casts a more subtle negative light on immigrants, that only those immigrants with a proven ability deserve entry to the United States.

There is an existing immigration process for immigrants with special abilities, one that his wife, Melania Trump, used to first gain entry to work as a model. But most Americans are the descendants of people who lacked formal job skills. There are any number of success stories among first-generation immigrants to the United States but far, far more about those whose parents and grandparents immigrated with few skills and little money.

Trump gets a gibe in here about the lottery system, which he has regularly and incorrectly framed as being a function of foreign countries picking undesirable people to be sent to the United States. But he also again suggests that those who immigrate illegally are often criminals — if not probably criminals.

That was his formulation during his campaign announcement on June 16, 2015: That immigrants entering from Mexico were murderers and rapists, only some of whom were “good people.” It’s the untrue claim that has survived the longest in Trump’s political career, having been debunked at that career’s outset. Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans, a point that has been made repeatedly. It’s hard to determine the figures for immigrants in the country illegally, but multiple studies indicate that those immigrants don’t commit crimes at higher rates than other immigrants.

The administration, though, often points to particular crimes committed by individual immigrants to paint the broad population with a wide brush. It’s how he uses the criminal gang MS-13 or terrorist suspects. The violent acts of a few become a useful proxy for groups he wants to keep out of the country.

On Friday, the White House sent out a document lamenting “Congressional Democrats’ family separation policy”: “Open border laws and policies are responsible for the permanent separation of too many American families whose loved ones have been lost to illegal alien crime.” In other words, Democrats are responsible for separating families by not taking a harder line on immigration that prevents isolated incidents of violent crime perpetrated by immigrants in the country illegally.

Consider the contrast that Trump is drawing. Good immigrants come with skills. Bad immigrants come in illegally and are additionally possible “murderers and thieves and so much else.” Plenty of native-born Americans could be accused of being murderers and thieves, too, of course.

“So we want a safe country, and it starts with the borders, and that’s the way it is.”

The United States has grown much safer — violent crime rates have plunged since 1990 — as the density of immigrants has increased. (The percentage of the country that is foreign-born grew from 8 to over 13 percent from 1990 to 2014.) The two aren’t necessarily correlated; that is, it’s not necessarily the case that crime is down because immigration is up. But it’s certainly not the case that the opposite is true. The country is safer than it was 25 years ago, and the country has more immigrants than it did 25 years ago.

Trump’s speech wasn’t about properly conveying the role of immigrants. It was about deflecting blame for an unpopular policy while reinforcing his long-standing political rhetoric, an effort that at times was internally contradictory.

It was not said very honestly or said particularly straight.