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Opinion Trump’s latest campaign ploy is disgusting — and it will fail

President Trump speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump rarely bothers to conceal his basest motives, which may explain why he revealed that his new suspension of immigration is a rank reelection ploy even before the policy was complete. His campaign blasted out a message describing it as a “decision to protect us from the coronavirus.”

If that’s meant to imply that protection from immigrants is equivalent to protection from a deadly pathogen that has killed over 40,000 Americans, it wouldn’t be surprising: Trump and his allies have cast immigration as a deadly infestation for years.

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We have now learned that Trump’s new executive order will likely block green cards from people who want to move here permanently — for 60 days. But it will still allow many categories of guest workers to enter.

Tellingly, Trump’s campaign is officially commenting on this policy even as it remains in flux, insisting it will protect U.S. workers from “competition,” at a time when “our economy has been artificially interrupted by the virus.” One prominent restrictionist claims this will give Trump a “populist” message showing he’s on the side of voters threatened by immigrant labor.

So let’s talk about this as a campaign tactic, and then talk about the argument behind the new move.

Immigrant-bashing has failed the GOP for three years

A new report from pro-immigrant America’s Voice provides an accounting of how often this tactic has failed Republicans during the Trump era. Because Trump won in 2016, pundits remain reluctant to acknowledge that this anti-immigrant demagoguery has been unsuccessfully wielded by an extraordinarily long series of failed GOP campaigns in the three years since.

As the report and a new companion video show, the rhetoric has been as wretched as it has been ineffective. An endless sewage gusher of ads and mailers has featured rapists and murderers, tattooed MS-13 members and dark hordes storming the border, while bashing their Democratic targets for supporting popular policies like legalization for the undocumented.

Dozens of Democrats subjected to those attacks prevailed. They include Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (in 2017), and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and untold numbers of Democrats elected to the House and to state legislatures (in 2018).

They also include Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (in 2019). These messages failed in partly rural districts, in overwhelmingly pro-Trump districts, in swing states Trump won, and in the reddest of red states — in short, everywhere.

Obviously it’s hard to say how important the failure of these messages was to these outcomes. But we can say they largely failed to accomplish their goal of galvanizing the Trump base to the point of neutralizing the voter backlash against him.

It’s also true this could be more effective for Trump himself than it was for GOP imitators — no one wields the hate like the master himself. But it’s also plausible it will be less effective for him, now that we’ve seen his sentiments translated into actual policy, which surely helped fuel that backlash.

Which brings us to the new policy.

Trump’s new move

It’s clear that it has no serious substantive rationale. Trump announced it before some of the most consequential underlying decisions about it were resolved, leaving aides scrambling.

What’s more, the impact remains to be seen. Green cards are normally processed at a rate of around 86,000 per month, so a 60-day pause would potentially halt around 170,000 green cards.

If the policy applies only to employment-based green card applications, and not family-unification ones, as some reports indicate, the number could be far lower, according to Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.

As Mittelstadt also points out, the administration has already largely suspended green card processing amid the pandemic.

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This means the “net effect” of the new policy “may have already been mostly realized by earlier procedural actions,” Mittelstadt told me. If this is “just a delay,” she said, then “presumably these same people could apply after the pause.”

These niggling facts badly undercut the notion that this is about protecting U.S. workers. First, as the New York Times points out, “numerous studies have concluded that immigration has an overall positive effect on the American work force and wages for workers.”

Trump’s argument is even more ridiculous under current circumstances. Some 22 million people have filed jobless claims in the last few weeks, because the economy is being put into a deliberate coma through social distancing. Given those soaring numbers, the idea that this halt — which would apply to a tiny fraction of those numbers, if that — will meaningfully impact a joblessness problem on that scale is ludicrous.

And the exceptions to the policy are deeply telling. It will not apply to guest workers, which is being widely described as a “concession to business groups.” That alone undercuts Trump’s messaging about the policy.

But this should also be seen as a concession to the fact that immigrant guest workers are playing a major role helping our society get through the crisis.

“This represents a recognition that temporary workers are essential in key industries, including those responding to the pandemic, such as agriculture and health care,” Mittelstadt told me.

More broadly, as CNN reports, millions of immigrants are working in jobs that are “on the front lines in the fight against coronavirus.” That makes vaguely portraying immigrants as bearers of the virus threat even worse.

Trump surely thinks coronavirus has people so terrified that this demagoguery will be a winner this time. But coronavirus had already spread widely here in part due to his own failures, and this move won’t do anything to address the coming economic carnage, either.

What we’re seeing here constitutes yet another absurd effort to erase the story of those failures. But it won’t work.

Families separated by the ban hope a legislative solution proposed by Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Judy Chu could prevent other American families from suffering. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: C-SPAN/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Dany Bahar: Suspending immigration would only hurt America’s post-coronavirus recovery

Henry Olsen: Trump could reboot his reelection bid on immigration. Don’t bet against him.

Julio Ricardo Varela: As he bungles this crisis, Trump turns to a familiar scapegoat: Immigration

J. Larry Brown: Immigrants are in the same boat with the rest of us in this pandemic. The administration doesn’t care.