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The Republican choice on immigration

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump at a White House event in August to unveil legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

I’ve written a few times in the past about President Trump and immigration, and every time I’ve heard from angry Trump supporters who took issue with my characterizing him as anti-immigrant. I was trafficking in a blatant lie, they told me; Trump was dead set against illegal immigration, because he believed in a nation of laws, but that didn’t make him intolerant when it came to immigrants generally, as long as they followed the rules.

This argument gave me some pause. My own judgment was based principally on Trump’s rhetorical bile, which seemed to me self-evidently xenophobic.

But it was also true that a candidate could theoretically propose drastic policies to deter undocumented, potentially dangerous visitors — like building a wall on the Mexican border and shutting out refugees from countries at a higher risk of terrorist infiltration — while still believing in the essential value of controlled immigration.

Trump had, in fact, claimed to strike exactly that balance. In an interview with the conservative website NewsMax just after the 2012 election, he lambasted Mitt Romney’s idea of “self-deportation” as a “maniacal” idea.

“He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country,” Trump said then. “The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is that they weren’t mean-spirited about it.”

What we know now, though, well into Trump’s first year in office, is that my instinct here was right: Trump’s attitude toward immigration really isn’t all that nuanced, or all that humane. And it’s up to Republicans to decide whether their party still stands for anything beyond the reactionary worldview he embodies.

I say this not just because the president decided this week to eliminate special protections for immigrants who were brought here as children. While I think Trump’s policy is misguided, I don’t find his reasoning entirely specious.

Trump is right that immigration policy is better made by an actual, functioning Congress than by executive fiat, which is bound to be temporal and therefore destabilizing to everyone it affects. (President Obama probably wouldn’t disagree, and he’d have been thrilled to sign reasonable legislation that protected these so-called DREAMers, if only Congress could have passed anything that required the slightest compromise.)

There’s really no good reason that majorities in Congress can’t get behind a bill that both shields children raised in America and provides some added money for border enforcement. If Trump’s stand forces the parties to do exactly that, then he’ll deserve some credit for putting the onus of lawmaking back where it belongs.

But that decision can’t be viewed in isolation. You also have to look at Trump’s enthusiastic support, in a speech at the White House last month, for a plan that would slash legal immigration, overturning decades of bipartisan measures that made it easier for immigrants to bring their relatives to the country and that opened America’s borders to refugees from persecution.

We’re not talking about potential terrorists here, or drug mules tunneling under the desert in the dark of night. We’re talking about the kind of industrious, risk-taking immigrants without whom most of us wouldn’t be here to debate these things today. (This includes Trump’s grandparents and mother, all of whom immigrated in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.)

You also have to look at the astonishing comments made recently by Stephen Miller, the young adviser who seems to most faithfully channel Trump on these cultural issues, and who seems to say something breathtaking every time he shows up in public.

This time, Miller, who sounds very much like the smug, provocative kid in a senior-year philosophy seminar whom every other kid wants to toss out the library window, lectured reporters on the history of the Statue of Liberty. He pointed out that the words now enshrined in our national consciousness — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” and so on — were added years after the statue was unveiled, and therefore, I guess, really weren’t all that relevant.

Thus did he become the first White House spokesman in history — though not the first white nationalist, by a long shot — to dismiss the American creed on immigration as a piece of propaganda. I don’t know how Miller’s ancestors ended up in America. I’m guessing it wasn’t on the Mayflower.

No, the mounting body of evidence here is pretty clear. Trump is not a guy who resents illegal immigration because it’s unsafe for the country and unfair to the hardworking, law-abiding immigrants who embrace our laws and ideals and who give up everything they’ve known for their children’s future.

Trump is a guy who resents immigrants, period. He is a neo-nativist. His “America first” actually means “Americans only.”

His story about combating furtive outsiders who steal jobs and menace communities is a simplistic story meant to arouse age-old passions and prejudices. His aim isn’t to restore order and lawfulness, but to incite disorder and fear — to harvest cheap adoration from those who fear the unfamiliar.

This is why, long before he ever ran for president, Trump made a crusade of falsely attacking Obama’s lineage. It wasn’t only because he was trying to fuel his own political ambitions. It was because when you fundamentally believe that outsiders are the cause of economic and social disruption, it stands to reason that the president you disdain must be an outsider, too.

This is a worldview, not incidentally, that puts Trump outside the mainstream of his Republican predecessors. Ronald Reagan signed legislation extending amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants. George H.W. Bush expanded legal immigration. George W. Bush made outreach to immigrants a centerpiece of his “compassionate conservatism.”

The intellectual argument for cultural conservatism, with its rejection of identity politics and diversity-by-quota, idealizes our tradition of assimilating immigrants. It holds that we are still the melting pot society, accepting anyone who will adopt our national customs and credos, assuring equality of opportunity but not equality of outcomes.

That’s not where Trump is. He seeks to restore the Buchananite faction of the party. (Pat, not Daisy.) He doesn’t believe there’s room for a melting pot in a world where factories relocate or shutter, where terrorists loom in the darkness and where most of the immigrants aren’t white.

These aren’t simple issues. Immigration is a harder sell in an imperiled empire than in a thriving incubator of the middle class. It’s not coincidence that Trump’s moment coincides with the rise of other nationalist movements in the world, where workers feel threatened by declining industries and porous borders.

But Republicans, in particular, have a choice to make. They can hold firm to the traditional conservative argument, or they can allow their party to be transformed by Trumpism. They can stand up for our essential identity as a nation of immigrants, or they can blame outsiders for all that ails the society.

What you can’t do, anymore, is tell me that somehow this president does both.