How Donald Trump destroyed the anti-amnesty movement

It's dead, and there's only one person to blame

Donald Trump's plan has backfired.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jorge Duenes)

Donald Trump will likely lose in November. But the lingering question is what his candidacy means for the future of American politics. Will it shift the Republican Party into a sort of American National Front, a populist party both socially conservative and economically liberal? Will the constant presence of Trump voters finish shattering the conservative coalition that was put together by Reagan and held together through sheer force of will?

While those questions remain, one thing seems clear: Donald Trump has killed the anti-amnesty movement. A recent CNN poll shows that six in 10 Americans oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico, 66 percent say the government should not attempt to deport all people living in the country illegally, and an astonishing 88 percent say illegal immigrants who have been in the country for some time, speak English, and are willing to pay back taxes should be able to remain in the country and eventually apply for citizenship — exactly the provision that destroyed previous attempts at so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" under the Bush and Obama administrations.

What's going on?

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In short, Trump has made opposition to amnesty tantamount to a kind of racism or bigotry. While his supporters had hoped that putting immigration front and center, and wrapping opposition to amnesty up with nationalism, that Trump would force American politics towards an immigration policy that might be open in some ways (all those doctors and engineers can stay!) but would not tolerate low-skilled or illegal immigration.

Instead, Trump's anti-amnesty movement backfired.

What attracted nativists to Trump in the first place wasn't his specific policy proposals, which have been all over the map. It was his apocalyptic rhetoric. A sampling: Mexicans are rapists and thugs (although "some, I assume, are good people"). Mexico is deliberately sending its worst people to the United States. We need to get immigration under control or "we don't have a country anymore." And, of course, there was the naked pandering to racists, like the flirtation with David Duke, which certainly gave a nice finishing touch to the whole tableau.

But it's this exact rhetoric that turned Trump into the caricature of the racist nativist, which now sticks to the entire anti-amnesty movement.

As with everything else he touches, Trump has turned gold into ash. The most likely outcome of Trump's immigration tirade seems to be Senate Majority Leader Schumer, House Speaker Ryan, and President Clinton all smiling and patting each other on the back in the Oval Office as an amnesty bill is signed into law.

Being anti-amnesty does not mean you're racist. And people who oppose amnesty have a few good points that are worth taking seriously. Most notably, assimilation is not going great, and it seems that assimilating large populations that come from a country right across the border (as opposed to an ocean away), in a globalizing age where they can immerse themselves in media of their own language, in their own communities, can pose a unique challenge. Many of these people are assimilating into the pathologies of the American underclass: family instability, social disconnection, and drugs.

What does it mean in the 21st century to be a nation? And how do you make immigration work in a globalizing world, when so much of the First World seems unable to? That's a real debate, and one that America needs to have. Instead, the existing debate about amnesty seems to consist of shouting epithets at each other. America deserves better.

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Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared at Forbes, The Atlantic, First Things, Commentary Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Federalist, Quartz, and other places. He lives in Paris with his beloved wife and daughter.