Without the assent of Congress, President Trump has remade almost every major facet of America’s immigration system over the past three-plus years, slashing levels of legal and illegal arrivals; refugees and asylum seekers; Muslim and Christian migrants. He has sought to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans and subject “dreamers” raised in this country to deportation. He tried to deter illegal border crossings by sundering families, thereby traumatizing migrant teens, tweens and toddlers. If reelected, it is likely Mr. Trump would do more of the same in pursuit of a Fortress America hostile to newcomers — a goal radically at odds with the nation’s long-term interest and the views and wishes of most Americans.
Mr. Trump has largely succeeded in delivering on the anti-immigration message that drove his 2016 victory and continues to animate much of his base. Only a small fraction of his border wall has been built, and Mexico has paid for none of it, but the thrust of his nativist vision has taken root in hundreds of rule changes and policy shifts that have slammed shut America’s doors. In the process, he has stunted the nation’s traditional role as a beacon to people seeking refuge from tyranny and a pathway to success through hard work.
The president and his advisers have justified their policy as a protective stance against migrants who would rob U.S. citizens of jobs and imperil their health with disease. In fact, there is scant evidence to substantiate those threats, and plenty to indicate that most Americans reject Mr. Trump’s fearmongering and xenophobia.
More than three-quarters of the public — the highest level in two decades — say immigrants are good for the country, according to a recent Gallup poll, and more Americans want immigration expanded than cut. Despite the administration’s anti-immigration crusade, or because of it, the percentage of respondents who favor decreased immigration flows is just 28 percent, the lowest share recorded by Gallup since 1965.
That broad support for immigration is rooted in what Americans see with their own eyes — that most immigrants are hard-working and law-abiding — engines of ingenuity and job creation who are twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. It’s also in line with demographic and economic good sense.
Reliable streams of immigrants, most of whom are of working age when they arrive, and younger than the overall U.S. population, are a bulwark against future demographic imbalance. That’s critical as U.S. birthrates have plummeted to their lowest level in decades, below what’s needed to replace an aging workforce. That poses a threat to long-term economic growth, and early indications are that the coronavirus pandemic may accelerate the drop in fertility. Slashing immigration will also hasten Social Security’s impending insolvency, as the system’s own trustees have pointed out.
Midway through his term, Mr. Trump proposed overhauling the legal immigration system to favor educated, skilled English speakers with strong earnings prospects, rather than relatives of current residents — an improvement on his previous embrace of long-term reductions. But that plan proved to be no more than political posturing: There was no effort at a bargain with Democrats that would include any path forward for dreamers, raised in this country, or the other 10 million undocumented migrants, most of whom have lived here for 15 years or more.
Mr. Trump poses as a paragon of strength, but his immigration policies, and the toxic rhetoric that attend them, are grounded in fear — a fear most Americans do not share. He conflates undocumented migrants generally with vicious criminal gangs such as MS-13, accusing Democrats of wanting them all to “pour into and infest our Country.” The specter of such an “infestation,” which evokes Nazi rhetoric that likened Jews to vermin, is a naked attempt to frighten Americans, and an invitation to vote their fears.
Such fear is groundless. None of the 3 million immigrants admitted to the United States as refugees since 1980, when the modern refugee program was established, has killed an American in a terrorist attack. Yet Mr. Trump has decimated the program, slashing admissions by some 80 percent from the nearly 85,000 resettled here the year before he took office. His top adviser on immigration matters, Stephen Miller, has pushed to eliminate refugee resettlement entirely. Even from its current, diminished state, it could take years to rebuild the infrastructure required to regain previous levels of resettlement.
For decades before Mr. Trump took office, the United States resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined; last year, it admitted just a third of the number of other countries’ total. That abdication of moral leadership is symptomatic of an administration that regards the idea of “moral leadership” as a sucker’s game. When Mr. Trump declares that “our country is full,” he also encourages other countries to turn their backs on the world’s most desperate people. When he pours scorn on welcoming refugees from Haiti and African countries — “shithole countries,” in his view — he promotes the idea that people clamoring to leave the world’s poor nations are undeserving of admission to rich ones. That is a rewrite and a rejection of America’s own creed; it diminishes the United States.
The coronavirus pandemic has furnished Mr. Trump with a pretext to shut down much of the already reduced immigration flow, on the argument that migrants pose a public health menace. The steps he has taken since the spring — including barring admission to asylum seekers; freezing the refugee program; and attempting to rescind visas for foreign students whose colleges shift to all online classes — are a likely sneak preview of a second Trump term.
The Supreme Court blocked the administration’s effort to remove work permits and the threat of deportation for dreamers, but the setback was temporary; if reelected, Mr. Trump could almost certainly implement those policies after undertaking the requisite procedures officials ignored in their initial attempt. He could also continue to squeeze or eliminate what has been a steady flow of visas for skilled and unskilled workers, as he has since the spring. Immigration advocates have further warned that the administration could renew efforts to coerce localities to assist deportation agents, thereby alienating immigrant communities. It could even, as Mr. Miller reportedly proposed, try to impede undocumented children from attending public school despite a Supreme Court ruling nearly 40 years ago forbidding states from doing so.
At the Republican convention last month, Mr. Trump presided over a naturalization ceremony for five newly minted citizens, a baldfaced attempt to slap a gloss of humanity on a president whose attacks on immigrants suggest he has none. Let no one be fooled. The tableaux of caged migrant children, torn from their parents’ arms, should be among the most enduring images produced by the president’s policies. They are emblematic of a government that has squandered the moral capital built up by administrations aware that in opening the nation’s arms to strivers from around the world, America also lived up to its ideals while serving its own interests.