America's political pundits are almost entirely united in presuming that Donald Trump's immigration position is unacceptably draconian, mostly likely motivated by racism, and quite possibly a harbinger of fascism.
This media-fueled presumption goes all the way back to Trump's campaign launch in June 2015, when the candidate spoke flippantly and irresponsibly about waves of Mexican immigrants streaming across the southern border, many of them rapists. It continued throughout the primary campaign, resurfaced again during the Republican convention, and reached an apex of sorts last Wednesday in Phoenix. That's when Trump capped a week in which he and his surrogates seemed to be preparing for the campaign to soften its immigration stance. Instead, Trump came out blazing, offering a 10-point plan to fix what he described as the nation's broken immigration system, and in the process, unleashing rhetorical fury on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the country's political establishment more broadly for their failure to address or even acknowledge the problem.
The reaction of political journalists on Twitter was instantaneous and severe — and the denunciations were echoed more formally over the following days in countless editorials and opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. Trump had gone beyond the pale in his Phoenix remarks, they tut-tutted, proposing policies fundamentally at odds with longstanding American values and timeless democratic ideals.
In fact, he had done nothing of the sort. As with all of his major statements on immigration, Trump's Phoenix speech was an unstable alloy mixing hysterical fear-mongering and exaggeration with perfectly defensible statements of political common sense. It is precisely this potent synthesis of truth and lies that has fueled his populist campaign for president from the beginning. Those who wish to assure a Trump defeat on Nov. 8 and begin fashioning a more responsible way to reach his voters in the future need to make the effort to disentangle the wisdom from the demagoguery in his rhetoric.
First, the deceptions, which are almost too numerous to recount. (That hasn't stopped a number of media outlets from attempting it.) When Trump talks about immigration, he sounds like he's running to serve as the president of a country in the midst of chaos and collapse: The lists of people who died at the hands of undocumented immigrants; the ominous but vague language about threats posed by foreigners among us; the insinuation that the president and the Democratic nominee for president are deliberately pursuing policies that are indisputably bad for the country; the irresponsible and unsubstantiated rhetoric about the U.S. being "in the middle of a jobs crisis, a border crisis, and a terrorism crisis like never before"; the wildly inflated numbers. (Trump suggested last Wednesday that there could be as many as 30 million illegal immigrants in the United States, which is roughly three times more than the most reliable estimates, while also implying that rates of illegal immigration are higher than ever when they are actually moving in the opposite direction.)
Trump's default mode of public speaking — whether or not he's reading from prepared remarks — is to hype threats, exaggerate evidence, and inflame fears. It deserves to be denounced by responsible politicians of both parties.
But Trump doesn't only hype, exaggerate, and inflame. Embedded in the anti-immigrant hysteria are broad programmatic statements of principle that are perfectly defensible. And more than defensible: They are indisputably true.
Over and over again, Trump makes the point that borders matter. That citizenship matters. And that the only consideration that should matter to policymakers when making decisions about immigration is the good of our country and our citizens. "It's our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us." True. There should be "only one core issue in the immigration debate, and that issue is the well being of the American people." True. "Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don't have a country." True. If "we have a completely open border … we no longer have a country." True.
Critics will respond that this is a straw man argument — that no one in mainstream American public life advocates abolishing the border. But that isn't the case. As I've argued on more than one occasion, two forms of anti-political internationalism have left a significant mark on public debate and discussion throughout the Western world. On one side, libertarian-minded economists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, journalists, and political donors advocate free markets, open borders, and the unobstructed flow of labor and capital around the globe. On the other, human-rights advocates, the United Nations, countless NGOs, and the leader of the most powerful member of the European Union morally denigrate all particularistic, national forms of solidarity in the name of humanitarian universalism.
And then there are those — like Hillary Clinton — who affirm soft versions of both forms of internationalism. Do we have reason to think that a new Clinton administration would abolish the nation's southern border? No. Yet her position on immigration moves surprisingly, and foolishly, far in that direction — promising to continue with and expand on President Obama's efforts to ease the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country while doing little to stop or discourage others from coming across the border to take advantage of these very liberalizing reforms. She also proposes to vastly increase (by as much as 550 percent) the number of Syrian refugees the United States will accept.
None of this means that, like many libertarians and humanitarians, Clinton considers the very idea of nationhood passé. More likely she's swayed by some universalistic arguments from both camps while also committed to helping expand the ranks of the Democratic Party — which most analysts presume would be the result of allowing large numbers of undocumented immigrants to work their way toward citizenship and voting rights.
Whatever her motives, Clinton has placed herself poles apart from Donald Trump on immigration. When it comes to many of the details, she has the better part of the argument. But at the level of principle — including the promise everywhere and always to place the good of those who are already American citizens ahead of those who are not — Trump has staked out the far stronger position.
It remains to be seen whether it also proves to be a winning position.