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Opinion Trump, Stephen Miller, and the ‘national sovereignty’ lie

President Trump visited border wall prototypes in California on March 13, and stressed the importance of implementing a wall on the border with Mexico. (Video: The Washington Post)
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We spend so much time chasing the small lies down rabbit holes that we often lose sight of the much bigger lies that undergird them. In this regard, one of the most monstrous lies we regularly hear from President Trump and his allies is the notion that our national sovereignty is under severe threat.

During Chris Wallace’s much-discussed cross-examination of Stephen Miller last weekend, Trump’s senior adviser pulled off a move of supreme rhetorical sleaze. In defending Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his wall, Miller slipped this in with almost no time remaining for Wallace to correct him:

This is a deep intellectual problem that is plaguing this city which is that we’ve had thousands of Americans die year after year after year because of threats crossing our southern border. … If the president can’t defend this country, then he cannot fulfill this constitutional oath of office.

Post fact checker Glenn Kessler has a new piece that dismantles this absurdity from every different angle. It’s entirely baseless. There isn’t any national comprehensive data set on people killed by undocumented immigrants, but as Kessler shows, if you extrapolate out using other data sets, the claim is not even close to credible.

What’s more, studies show that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans and that illegal immigration does not lead to increased crime or violence. And even if you give very generous treatment to the slippery rhetorical trick Miller uses — note that Miller refers to deaths at the hands of vaguely defined “threats” — and include deaths from drugs, this doesn’t support Miller’s argument, either, because Trump’s wall wouldn’t stop the flow of drugs, most of which come through official ports of entry.

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A bigger absurdity

But what deserves more attention here is the much bigger underlying absurdity Miller’s claim is designed to push: the idea that we’re losing control of our country.

Miller claims that without the wall, Trump “can’t defend" our borders. Elsewhere in the Fox News interview, Miller broadens the claim: “You cannot conceive of a nation without a strong, secure border. It is fundamental and essential to the idea of sovereignty and national survival to have control over who enters and doesn’t enter the country.”

This is an assertion that Trump himself makes constantly — he regularly employs some variation of the formulation that “a country without borders isn’t a country” — yet it almost never gets examined in its own right.

It’s actually two lies in one. Let’s take the idea that we don’t have control over our borders. This is not true by any reasonable metric — illegal border crossings are near historic lows, while the number of Border Patrol agents has expanded to an extraordinary degree, and terrorists breaching the border is a nonexistent problem. This is all well documented. What needs to be pointed out more often is that these things blow up the second, bigger lie — that we don’t have a country or national sovereignty.

Indeed, a report from Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security found in 2017 that the southern border is “more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before.” That, too, renders the bigger lie even more absurd.

What about the big spike in asylum-seeking families? That is a very real problem. But it is not a problem of allegedly nonexistent borders, since these people are largely turning themselves in to seek asylum. Trump and Miller argue that many of these people are slipping into the interior while awaiting hearings, and have sought changes to the law to, for instance, make it easier to detain families together indefinitely. This is a worthy debate to have. The response is that such measures are deeply inhumane and that the better answer to the problem — which Trump absurdly hypes to begin with — is to invest more in streamlining and reorganizing the ways in which asylum seekers are processed.

But regardless of which side of that debate you take, there’s just no credible way to argue that this problem poses a serious threat to our national sovereignty, unless the real claim being made here is that any illegal infiltration of the country, no matter how minor in the larger scheme of things, represents a serious threat to it.

In truth, for Trump and Miller, the real goal is to dramatically downsize the numbers of asylum seekers in the country whether they are here legally or not. That’s why they keep trying to place limits on the ways asylum seekers can apply. (Notably, they are also busily slashing refugee flows at every chance they get.)

There’s one other pernicious argument here that must be addressed. Miller’s suggestion that there is a “deep intellectual problem in this city” is a variation of the claim that on illegal immigration, political elites are out of touch. As Trump recently put it:

No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls, and gates, and guards.

But this demagoguery about elites coddling undocumented immigrants, too, is at its core a lie. Large majorities of Americans support giving them a path to legalization. They simply do not see the general presence of undocumented immigrants in this country as the threat to America that Trump and Miller keep hyping.

Trump and Miller really do view the levels of overall immigrants here — legally or not — as a threat to our national sovereignty. As Jacob Levy notes, the view that sovereignty is synonymous with restricting immigration to keep the nation and “its people” homogeneous is a hallmark of Trump’s type of demagogic, xenophobic populism.

But this Trump/Miller conception of national sovereignty fundamentally misstates what the term really means. If it connotes the ability for the nation to govern itself — that is, to control who gets in and who gets out — then if majorities legitimately got their elected representatives to let in immigrants or to let more remain here legally, they wouldn’t constitute a threat to our sovereignty, either. And on this question, political majorities are aligned against Trump and Miller, and with the Democratic political class, which supports current levels of legal immigration and wants to give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

Read more:

Letters to the Editor: Stephen Miller, the architect of family separations, should look at his own family’s history

Michael Gerson: Trump is turning a budget crisis into a constitutional crisis — all for a fool’s impulse

Greg Sargent: Trump advisers are cynically feeding his raging ego, and we’re all the victims

Jennifer Rubin: What if one party doesn’t believe America is for everyone?

The Post’s View: Trump’s war on legal immigration would cripple the economy