Why It's a Mistake to Take Donald Trump's Immigration Plan Seriously

Trump's white paper is an attempt to create the illusion of policy detail.


Gage Skidmore

The release of Donald Trump's immigration policy "white paper" yesterday has occasioned a flurry of analysis that attempts to pin down exactly how the GOP presidential candidate's program might or might not work. Much of it is valuable in that it details how expensive, awful, unpopular, impractical (if not impossible), and downright inhumane Trump's ideas ("ideas") are.

But in some larger sense all of this sober, relatively traditional political analysis is beside the point, because, regardless of how much detail Trump does or doesn't provide, or how plausible or implausible his plan is, or whether it accounts for the complications of Congress, cost-estimates, or the Constitution, it is a mistake to treat Trump's paper—or, for that matter, anything else he says or produces—as serious policy.

One of the things we know about Trump at this point is that he tends to give matters of policy very little considered thought. While other Republican candidates prepped extensively for the GOP primary debate earlier this month, the billionaire real estate developer's campaign claimed that he did not rehearse, and reports indicated that Trump essentially ignored the various policy and strategy memos that were prepared for him. One adviser told ABC News that he had no idea what to expect from Trump at the debate. It's likely that Trump didn't really know either. He finds out what he's going to say when the rest of us do—that is, when he says it.

Something else we know about Trump, related to the previous item, is that even when he announces support for a position, he does not tend to stick with it. Rather he has a cavalier, play-it-by-ear attitude toward policy pronouncements: He has, for example, infamously flip-flopped on abortion and health care over the past few years. As The Washington Post notes, he's been wildly inconsistent on other issues as well, offering differing, sometimes conflicting, occasionally obscure versions of how he'd address the Iran deal, tax reform, the Islamic State, and, yes, immigration—and this is just in the past three months.

It's true, of course, that presidents often adjust or even significantly rethink their campaign plans once in office. But Trump's stated plans (the majority of which do not qualify as actual plans in any meaningful sense) seem to have no bearing whatsoever on the day-to-day of his campaign statements. Just because Trump has offered up some position today does not mean that it will be his position tomorrow or the day after that. He is a completely unreliable guide to his own policy ideas.

Finally, Trump is a self-aggrandizing showman, and he likes to play-act at whatever thing he is pretending to be doing, adding theatrical but totally meaningless gimmicks and flourishes in hopes of making a bigger impression. In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, for example, Trump wrote that, in conducting his real-estate business, he would draw up architectural plans designed to look far more expensive and thoughtfully designed than they were, or have construction equipment engage in meaningless busywork in order to impress investors with the illusion of activity.

With his half-baked immigration white paper, Trump is doing essentially the same thing, but for his presidential campaign: He's attempting, through the use of a simple gimmick, to create the illusion of thoughtfully crafted, substantive policy detail. Don't be fooled. Trump's white paper is cheap, shabby, policy artifice, and it shouldn't be confused for the real thing.