Immigration and Trump-Era Politics

by G. Cristina Mora, University of California, Berkeley, USA

The run-up to November 2016 included much rhetoric about who made America great, and who would bring about its moral and economic downfall. At the center of this debate were immigrants: claims about “bad hombres” and “criminals” from Mexico and elsewhere peppered then-candidate Trump’s speeches and campaign bombast. Equating immigrants and criminals, along with continuous talk of job displacement, fueled a nationalist, anti-immigrant chorus that reached its crescendo during the Republican National Convention, as Trump stood against a backdrop of the US/Mexico Border, with crowds chanting “Build A Wall.”

For many immigration scholars, the hype seemed dangerously misplaced, for three reasons. First, immigration has been at a net-zero for the last decade. As many immigrants leave each year as arrive, and the most recent data suggests that more Mexicans are leaving than moving into the US. The era of mass migration to the US has ended, despite political clamoring about a sudden “illegal” invasion or an immigration surge. Secondly, much research, including research from the Congressional Budget Office, indicates that immigrants provide an overall net economic gain to the nation. Immigrants, even unauthorized ones, pay taxes, and second-generation immigrants form one of the most entrepreneurial groups in the country. Moreover, immigrants are less likely than the native-born to enroll in public assistance programs, a fact that is often lost on politicians and blogs who warn of the Latina “welfare queen.” Last, immigrants want to integrate. Far from being a cultural threat to the nation, the vast majority of immigrants, and especially their children, learn English. And for what it’s worth, most immigrants are also religious; in fact, the vast majority of Mexican “bad hombres” in the US profess some Christian faith – a fact which once led Ronald Reagan to declare Latinos were Republican, they just didn’t know it yet.

But despite volumes of this type of research finding, hype about the dangers of immigration continues to win out the day. But is this due only to right-wing politics? Not quite. Centrist media and mainstream Democrats have also added fuel to this fire. While not as explicit as conservative media, outlets like The New York Times, for example, often comment more on immigration’s costs and crimes, than on its benefits to society. And despite the eventual passage of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) , the Obama administration carried out the same deportation policies put in place during the Bush administration, eventually deporting more immigrants than his previous two predecessors combined, a record that earned him the title of “Deporter in Chief.” To his credit, his administration put more weight on deporting newly-arrived immigrants rather than established ones – but this does little to soften the blow for immigrant rights advocates who expected comprehensive immigration reform and were swept up by his “Yes We Can” campaign pronouncements.

And yet, the idea that the Democrats could champion immigrant rights seemed promising in the months leading up to November 2016. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, peppered his Democratic National Convention speech with Spanish phrases, promising immigrants that the Democratic Party would prioritize comprehensive immigration reform. Clinton held mass rallies in Texas and Florida, continuously promising that she would follow through on immigration and would do what the Obama administration had not. Hispanic/Latino lobby groups gripped tight to these promises, unleashing a massive get-out-the-vote campaign which eventually helped keep several Southwestern states Democratic and propelled the first Latina to the US Senate.

Asian lobby groups were not far behind. Although less numerous than their Latino counterparts, Asian organizations make up a significant part of the immigration rights movement. In the months before the election, Asian lobbies contended that Asian voters would make the difference in toss-up states like Virginia and Nevada. They also rolled out impressive voter registration campaigns, warning that Democrats would be wise to make immigration reform a central part of their platform.

But despite these impressive efforts, Latinos and Asians could not change electoral outcomes. The fate of the nation was decided in small town communities in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – not in coastal immigrant gateways. Indeed, the mid-western Rustbelt states had witnessed a doubling of the immigrant population since the early 1990s, as immigrants took positions not only in agricultural fields, but also in factories. Their “outsider” looks and culture likely made them a target for right-wing political figures who needed a way to rally their base. It was easier for politicians to blame job loss and economic woes on immigrants than to speak more comprehensively about the mechanics of global capitalism and rising inequality.

So where does this leave the cause of immigrant rights – especially if immigration facts fall on deaf political ears in Washington? The answer is not clear, except to say that states will be the immediate target of immigration advocacy. California, for example, provides health coverage and drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, ensuring some comfort and sense of legal integration. Cities there and elsewhere have proclaimed themselves “sanctuaries,” a symbolic move that nonetheless communicates resistance to the Trump administration.

Still the road is bleak. Trump controls the same intricate deportation regime refined by Obama, and in his first year he has continued to link immigration with crime. His Muslim Travel Ban, for instance, re-ignited a national conversation linking Muslims to terrorism. His pardon of Joe Arpaio, the Arizona Sheriff who violated a court order by detaining immigrants simply because they were unauthorized, once again communicated his “bad hombres” message. Moreover, Trump intends to end DACA, even though the program is targeted towards childhood arrivals who have not been convicted of a serious crime and do not pose a threat to public safety.

Is protest the answer? In 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigration rights activists took to the streets, chanting, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” and “Immigration rights are human rights.” More than a decade has passed, but neither promise has come to fruition. Without amnesty, immigrants have not become voting citizens. And activists’ appeals to “human rights,” or to the hope that Americans will see immigrants as part of a communal global citizenry, seem woefully inadequate in our current era of Trump-style American nationalism. And today, activists fear that future protests could spark a backlash: the number of local anti-immigrant ordinances spiked soon after the 2006 protests.

Immigration reform is a political pawn used by both sides. The fight to reunite families and to give immigrants a chance to fulfill their American dream is certainly worthy – and immigrant rights activists work tirelessly towards this cause. No parents should be torn away from their US-born children, and no individual should be denied safety, shelter and other opportunities simply because they were born on the wrong side of a wall. At the same time, we should recognize large-scale changes to US immigration policy will likely never develop, because the system delivers precisely what it is supposed to. As designed and operated, it provides a captive labor force that subsidizes our global markets and enables exploitation. No temporary relief, minor policy changes, or short-term amnesty programs can change this larger dynamic.

Direct all correspondence to G. Cristina Mora <cmora@berkeley.edu>

United States, Volume 7, Issue 4

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