Opinion

How Donald Trump destroyed immigration reform

Trump has made anyone else's attempt to establish a credibly hawkish position on the issue even harder. No small feat!

Donald Trump is an expert in branding himself and his "ideas" for the millions of people who don't follow politics closely: Do it in the most blunt way possible. Even a rock could identify the Trump campaign by few things. First the red hat, with the slogan "Make America Great Again." Also his get-tough policy on immigration. "We're going to build a wall," he'd say at his rallies, "and whose going to pay for it?" "Mexico," they'd respond.

This dynamic electrified his campaign for a simple reason: America's immigration policy is abnormal. The combination of insane paperwork and byzantine codes for highly skilled legal immigrants with all but nonexistent enforcement against the mass of low-skill immigrants is unique in human history. Uniquely stupid. Trump pantsed candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio who favored amnesty. He promised a "deportation force" for illegal immigrants and "extreme vetting" for refugees. He promised a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, and extra scrutiny for migrants from war-torn countries.

Now it seems like Donald Trump wishes we would all forget his branding on immigration.

In the last week, he has wafflingly indicated that his immigration position was "softening." And that, in fact, maybe he would grant legal status to millions of immigrants who live in the United States illegally but have established themselves in the U.S. after all.

This isn't the first time he's suffered whiplash on immigration. In February, when Trump was told that former president of Mexico Vincente Fox cursed out Trump's idea of Mexico paying for America's border wall, Trump responded, "The wall just got 10 feet higher." A few weeks later, Trump was "softening." In front of an audience in Detroit, Trump said, "I'm changing. I'm changing. We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can't do it, we'll get them in."

One of the great hopes Trump's supporters had for him was that his candidacy would at least highlight the idiocy of America's existing immigration regime. Even if he was crude about it, even if his rhetoric was unnecessarily inflammatory and racialized, he was driving at the core questions around which an immigration policy is built: Who? How many? What will they contribute to our country?

Unlike all the other candidates who merely praise the legacy of Ellis Island as a way to avoid the actual policy questions, Trump was moving the discussion back to brass tacks. He was making it possible for America to achieve the immigration policies that countries like Canada and Australia have. They select their immigrants for skills the nation needs and compatibility with the country as it exists now.

But in the end, Trump brought his usual lack of shame and integrity to immigration. First, his overheated rhetoric on the issue, though it won him some loyalty from border hawks, repelled average Americans. Surely his new pollster recently told him as much. He made those core questions of an immigration policy — "Who?" and "How many?" — harder to ask by surrounding them with racial and religious bigotry.

And then he showed that he'll turn on a dime anyway. Just as John McCain put on a drawl, and said, "Finish the dang fence" when he ran in a primary, only to embrace amnesty when he was returned to office, so has Trump become just another establishment sellout. The effect is to further demoralize the cause of getting a reasonably tougher and more coherent immigration policy. If even Trump is going to lose all the savor of the fight after months of paying the price for this rhetoric, just because of one meeting with Latinos and the advice of one pollster, why bother at all? Trump has made even bringing up the issue of border security more difficult. And he's made anyone else's attempt to establish a credibly hawkish position on the issue even harder. Not a small feat.

Of course, Trump's border-hawk backers should have known better. There was no reason to imagine that Trump was going to suddenly discover the virtue of constancy in politics when it is in evidence nowhere else in his life. His whole way of being is to tell people what they want to hear until the sale is made. On immigration, as in everything else, Trump's word was his junk-bond.

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