President Trump’s decision to endorse a “zero tolerance” border policy aligns his administration squarely with the populist, anti-immigration movement that has swept Europe and brought hard-right leaders to power amid an unprecedented wave of global migration.
As Trump this week defended his administration’s border security strategy by warning that lax immigration laws are “destroying our country,” Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, was announcing plans to conduct a national census with the aim of deporting ethnic Roma who had not attained citizenship. This comes after the Italian government this month blocked a rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants from docking in its ports.
“The good times for illegals are over — get ready to pack your bags,” Salvini said shortly after being sworn in on June 1.
The hard-line immigration messages from Washington and Rome represented a stark shift from less than two years ago when President Barack Obama and then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stood together at the White House and agreed that all nations must do more to share the costs of migration.
Instead, Trump has expressed solidarity with European leaders who have sought to seal their borders, speaking last weekend with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government has built fences to keep out migrants. Trump recently extended a White House invitation to Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s new prime minister, who leads the first purely populist government in the core of Western Europe since the founding of the European Union.
And Trump has renewed his criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her decision three years ago to welcome hundreds of thousands of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Merkel is hanging on to power by a thread amid a dispute over migration policy within her conservative bloc.
On Tuesday, Trump repeated his false claim that Germany’s crime rate has increased by 10 percent, even though official statistics released last month showed a drop of more than 5 percent in 2017 and the lowest rate since 1992. (A separate study found a 10 percent increase in violent crimes in one German state between 2015 and 2016. Researchers attributed the jump largely to the influx of young male refugees but noted a similar increase would have been expected had there been sudden growth in the population of young male Germans.)
“The United States has just surpassed Germany as having the most asylum seekers of any nation on Earth — can you imagine that?” Trump said Tuesday during a speech to small-business owners, citing a new report from the United Nations Refugee Agency that attributed the U.S. spike to a flood of Central American migrants.
Trump on Wednesday backed off his administration’s policy of separating families at the border but made clear he would continue his aggressive approach on immigration.
“We’re keeping families together, and this will solve that problem,” he said Wednesday when signing an executive order in the Oval Office. “At the same time, we are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be a zero tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally”
As U.S. lawmakers and journalists have highlighted the humanitarian costs of Trump’s border policies, which have separated more than 2,000 immigrant children from their parents over the past six weeks, experts said his administration’s approach reflects an ongoing backlash among voters in Western nations to the record levels of displaced people that have scrambled global politics.
The U.N. report showed a worldwide total of 68.5 million migrants in 2017 — an all-time high. Filippo Grandi, the international body’s high commissioner for refugees, characterized the numbers as “a watershed” and called for “a far more comprehensive approach so that countries and communities aren’t left dealing with this alone.”
But Trump, in his remarks, vowed to seek congressional authority to cut off financial assistance to countries that fail to stem the flow of migrants to the United States.
“We’re not going to give any more aid to those countries,” Trump declared. “Why the hell should we?”
Critics have called Trump’s policies racist and xenophobic, citing studies that have shown immigrants contribute to economic growth and commit crime at lower rates than do native-born Americans.
But supporters said the president is responding to the same public concerns about national security, cultural change and economic upheaval that prompted Britain’s Brexit vote, a second-place finish for the radical right in the French presidential election and the return of the far right to the German parliament for the first time in half a century.
“The elites have internalized a post-national worldview” because they benefit from globalization, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “Whereas the public more broadly still sees real emotional and normative value in peoplehood and nationhood.”
In Europe, immigration has recast the political map, sapping the strength of the left and shifting much of the right to what had long been considered the radical fringe.
“To be anti-immigration is one of the most mainstream positions in European politics,” observed Peter Kreko, director at Budapest-based Political Capital. Although discontent over immigration had long been building, it was a massive refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016 that tipped the balance. Within a matter of months, more than a million people fleeing war, oppression and poverty streamed into Europe.
Anti-immigration forces have surged across the continent again in recent months, and some analysts suggested Trump’s renewed interest in making common cause with his ideological brethren across the Atlantic could be contributing to his recent immigration enforcement push. The spike in Central American migrants has sent illegal immigration to the highest levels of Trump’s presidency.
Among Europe’s far right, analysts said, there is a feeling that Trump, after failing in his first year to act as aggressively as he promised in the campaign, has in recent months begun trusting his instincts and disregarding the cautions of his more centrist advisers, several of whom have left the administration.
Stephen K. Bannon, who was forced out last summer as White House chief strategist after clashing with other West Wing advisers over his hard-line populism, recently toured Europe and met with populist leaders to sell his dream of a transatlantic nationalist revival.
Europe is “maybe two years in the cycle ahead of the United States” in its populist embrace, Bannon said in an interview with The Washington Post last month. “There’s a lot to learn from Europe.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, told Breitbart News that he intends to use his perch to “empower” conservatives across the continent. He singled out for praise Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has made cracking down on immigration a core government priority since coming to power in an alliance with the far right.
Grenell was widely criticized in Germany for his comments. But analysts said his view reflects a new reality in which nationalists on either side of the Atlantic are attempting to coordinate their strategies and messages.
“This is something new,” said Jan Techau, Europe director for the German Marshall Fund. “It’s the first time the right has a true international narrative.”
That has left Merkel increasingly isolated, and it’s not clear how much longer she can hold on. Her government has wobbled badly in recent days with a core part of her conservative bloc threatening a mutiny as it pushes for border controls to block certain asylum seekers from entering Germany.
Even as she was struggling to keep her government together, Trump gloated about the rebellion, tweeting Monday that Germans are “turning against” their leaders.
“Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” the president added.
Techau said Merkel’s survival remains in doubt. Much depends on her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which is close to both Kurz and Orban and may decide that anger over immigration gives the party leverage for a radical move.
“The onus is on them,” Techau said. “Either the CSU stays within the traditional logic or it goes nuclear and breaks apart the party system in Germany.”