Donald Trump

Donald Trump Is Terrible on Immigration, But Congress Is the True Monster

The president's policy of separating families at the border is wrong, but he's enabled by a lack of legislative action dating back decades.


Nick Gillespie

It's the "dago guinea wop greaseball" side of me whose stomach turns when reading the stories and seeing the pictures of kids and parents being separated at the U.S. border with Mexico. My mother was born in Connecticut in 1927 to Nicola and Maria Guida, two Italians who originally came to America in the 1910s. They never spoke English and they're dead, as is my mother, so I can't exactly check this story out. But one version goes like this: My grandmother had her first child, my uncle John, in the very late '10s, got homesick, and traveled back to the old country with her infant son. By the time she was ready to return, immigration laws had changed and they were unable to come back for several years (neither she nor my grandfather became U.S. citizens until after World War II, during which my uncle participated in the invasion of Italy of all operations).

It's not remotely the same situation as the one unfolding today in slow-motion sadness, but both involve laws about borders that keep families apart and both should give us all pause. What minimal amount of humanity does it take to feel the pain of the children involved, or the mothers and fathers? The immigration restrictions of the early 20th century were explicitly racist and nativist in intent (read about Bhagat Singh Thind, an Asian Indian who fought for the U.S. in World War I and, as a "high caste aryan," tried to get himself classified as white in 1923 and who had contempt for "mongoloids" and blacks; even some of the people fighting racist immigration and citizenship laws were racist).

Today's situation involving adult illegals entering the country with children takes place in a wildly different context, but the casual brutality of taking kids away from parents while legal niceties are being sorted out is uncomfortably reminiscent of the past. As a Twitter obsessive, I'm well aware of the old "if you don't want your kids to be locked in sleeping pens in a converted Walmart with a Donald Trump mural, then don't break the law!" arguments. Save it for someone who doesn't care, or is uninformed. Donald Trump and his supporters have repeatedly said that they are not just simply following the law, but that it's a "horrible law" and that Democrats are responsible for it. No part of that is true, as The New York Times (yes, yes, that failing thing) makes clear:

For more than a decade, even as illegal immigration levels fell over all, seasonal spikes in unauthorized border crossings had bedeviled American presidents in both political parties, prompting them to cast about for increasingly aggressive ways to discourage migrants from making the trek.

Yet for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the idea of crying children torn from their parents' arms was simply too inhumane — and too politically perilous — to embrace as policy, and Mr. Trump, though he had made an immigration crackdown one of the central issues of his campaign, succumbed to the same reality, publicly dropping the idea after [public discussion in 2017 by former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly] touched off a swift backlash.

But advocates inside the administration, most prominently Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump's senior policy adviser, never gave up on the idea. Last month, facing a sharp uptick in illegal border crossings, Mr. Trump ordered a new effort to criminally prosecute anyone who crossed the border unlawfully — with few exceptions for parents traveling with their minor children.

And now Mr. Trump faces the consequences. With thousands of children detained in makeshift shelters, his spokesmen this past week had to deny accusations that the administration was acting like Nazis. Even evangelical supporters like Franklin Graham said its policy was "disgraceful."

If you can't trust the Times, then read George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin's analysis at the Volokh Conspiracy, which states in part:

If enforcing the law really were the main concern of Trump and Sessions, they could easily address the issue by supporting legislation banning family separation at the border, except in cases of child abuse or similar exigency. Congressional Democrats have in fact proposed such a law, the Keep Families Together Act. If Trump were to endorse it, the bill could easily attract enough GOP support to get through Congress quickly, as many Republicans also oppose family separation and worry that the administration's policy might hurt their in the midterm elections. But Trump refuses to do that, because he instead prefers to use the plight of separated children as leverage to extract concessions from Congress on other immigration issues. He literally wants to hold the children as political hostages in order to push through his agenda of drastically reducing legal immigration, as well as illegal.

Here's the thing: To the extent that we are talking about this particular situation (which, amazingly to my mind, is not negatively affecting the president's approval ratings), we are missing a bigger and more important part of immigration policy specifically and political power more generally. The problem is with Congress, and it's always worth remembering that Donald Trump is not the cause but the effect of the decline in the ability and willingness of Congress to actually do its job in the 21st century. Its main job is to write and pass legislation, especially on major federal issues, but it has mostly abdicated that responsibility for decades now and nowhere is this more true than in the case of immigration reform. This is a fully bipartisan failure, as the Republicans and Democrats have both enjoyed legislative power since 2001, but the only time that they have really pulled off things has been in the wake of real and imagined major catastrophes (The Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley in response to the tech bubble bursting) or ramming things through on starkly partisan lines (Obamacare, last year's tax bill). The clever libertarian thing to say is that gridlock is good and who wants more laws anyway, right?

In fact, the incompetence and indifference of Congress in hitting its basic marks—such as insisting on declarations of war before invading and bombing foreign countries or passing an actual budget once in a while—is the reason why the House and the Senate combine for a craptacular approval rating of 15.7 percent. By that comparison, the president's sad! 43.7 percent rating is pretty goddamn great.

From a libertarian point of view, Trump is horrible on immigration. Indeed, the whole cornerstone of his presidential campaign was built on a reality-challenged rant about Mexican migrants being rapists, drug dealers, disease carriers, and worse. That is a problem, but Trump isn't the reason why our immigration laws are so screwed up.

After George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, he said he had a ton of political capital and he was going to spend it on two big issues: Social Security reform and immigration reform. Neither went anywhere, primarily because of pushback from his own party. Like his father and Ronald Reagan, Bush had always been unapologetically pro-immigration and pro-immigrant. He was a political realist on the topic, though, and went along with increased border enforcement as the cost of doing business. But in 2007, a Democratic-controlled Senate quashed his last, best hope for comprehensive reform. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act would have added border fencing and border patrol, but would have also created a pathway to citizenship for some illegals and incorporated the old, first version of a Dream Act. It never got to a vote in the Senate thanks to most Republicans and a sizable chunk of Democrats. Immigration reform got shut down under Obama too, thanks again to both parties' reluctance to act (at the time, reform proponent Tamar Jacoby of Immigration Works USA blamed "anti-immigrant Republicans [who] have joined with Democrats allied with labor unions, many of which have a history of resisting immigration out of concern that a supply of immigrant workers competing for jobs will drive down wages"). Apart from his parting gift to "dreamers," Barack Obama was not good on immigration, if not quite as upfront about it as Donald Trump. He and his fellow Democrats—who accomplished nothing on the issue when they had the chance—are mostly comfortable spectating as the GOP follows through on its suicide pact on the issue.

As long as we're blaming Donald Trump for the rending of families at our Southern border, he's happy (he's a narcissist, after all). Democrats are happy (perhaps wrongly, they sense an advantage in the upcoming midterms) and Republicans are mostly happy too (members are pushing bills that would chop legal immigration by 40 percent or more). But as in so many other things, to focus on the president is to let the people most responsible for the current mess off the hook. And that would be Congress.