Trump’s attack on immigration

Moderates within Joe Biden’s party would like to see more constraints on the entry of people into US

Shahid Javed Burki April 27, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

Curtailing — if not altogether eliminating — the entry of foreigners into the country was an important component of the plank that won Donald Trump the support of the segment of the population that came to form his political base. Most of these people lived in what was often called the “fly over” country. The political and economic elite that had dominated the American system was concentrated on the two coasts. The elite had little knowledge of what was going on in the vast land that lay between the East and West coasts. There people were suffering, losing jobs to immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America and competition from China. Anti-immigration and anti-China became the central planks in the policy programme Trump promised he would pursue once he took up residence in the White House. Building a wall all along the border with Mexico was an important part of this programme. The other was to challenge China by not allowing it access to America’s technology products.

The arrival of the coronavirus from China gave President Trump the opportunity to move forward with this programme. How Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus affected the US-China relations and how could the pandemic be used to limit immigration were two parts of the Trump plan to win the support of his base. Today, I will discuss some aspects of the anti-immigration moves made by the American President.

In his press briefing on Tuesday, April 21, detailing what his administration was doing to handle the Covid-19 crisis, Trump threw a surprise concerning immigration. By that day the disease had claimed 44,988 lives in the US. For Tuesday, when Trump made the announcement pertaining to immigration, the death toll was estimated at 2,868. But for the President the more relevant number was the number of people who had lost their jobs because of the restrictions that were placed on human activity. The most important of these was the “business lockdown”. According to health experts, these moves were seen as helping to lower the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19. But Trump ignored these views and tweeted that the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, all with Democrats as governors, should be “liberated”. By April 16, the number of people who had filed for jobless claims had jumped to 22 million. In this number, Trump saw a threat to his re-election in November.

His plans about immigration went to the extreme. He announced that as he spoke, an executive order was being drafted that would be signed by him the following day which would order a temporary halt in issuing green cards to prevent people from entering the US. He said that his order would be in effect for 60 days but that he might extend it “based on economic conditions at the time”. But he backed away from the plans to suspend guest worker programmes after business groups exploded in anger at the threat of losing access to foreign workers. Last year about one million people were granted legal permanent resident status, or a green card.

There were sharp reactions to the intended Trump moves by those who wanted to keep America reasonably open. “This is both a political act to demagogue and distract from his awful handling of the Covid-19 crisis and lack of testing,” said Todd Schulte, the president of, a technology group that advocates immigration and “it is also policy effort by hardliners to use this crisis to enact their awful, decades-old wish to radically slash immigration.” But the support from the other side was equally strong, indicating how divided the country was on the issue of immigration. Roy Beck, the founder of NumbersUSA, a group that presses for deep cuts in legal immigration, said that such a message would be a potent political tool as Mr Trump faces off against Joe Biden in the election. “Absolutely it’s powerful. If he comes out with an executive order that implements that tweet, he really is telling voters, I get it. When you have a job loss, you can’t have immigration. That is the populist message that I think was his strongest suit in 2016.” It was not clear what legal authority the administration will use to shut off the decades-old immigration system, even temporarily. In the past, Trump had used health-emergency powers to restrict asylum at the border with Mexico and the White House had repeatedly used broad executive powers in immigration law to impose travel bans. He did this in the first few days of his presidency when, by issuing an executive order, he banned the entry into the US of all citizens from seven Muslim majority countries. The order was challenged in the courts, amended a couple of times but was finally endorsed by the Supreme Court in a weaker form. The same fate awaits the new move.

Would the anti-immigrant policies Trump is now poised to adopt help the men (not women) who seem to be choosing what Anne Case and her husband, Angus Deaton, call the “death of despair?” That is a part of the title of their book published in 2020 based on research done to understand why some men in the US had come to the point where they welcomed death more than life. Reviewing the book, Arlie Hochschild correctly noted that “in today’s newer, whiter story of despair, access to a BA degree has almost come to determine a man’s life story. Increasingly, it predicts joblessness; among whites age 25-54, a woman with a BA is more likely to work than a man without one. That degree also increasingly predicts a man’s wage, because earnings for BA-have-nots, they have gone down.”

These are angry men; they were looking for somebody to explain to them the causes of their suffering. In 2016, they found such a man in Donald J Trump and put him in the White House. He told them that they were the victims of two policies past presidents had adopted: getting close to China and allowing almost unconstrained immigration. This was, of course, a serious misdiagnosis of the actual situation. The “BA-have-nots” can only be helped by training them for the jobs that exist and not those that have been lost to automation and foreign competition.

How will Trump’s political competition react to his moves? The Democrats have as yet to come up with an immigration plan that would satisfy their different components. The left wants practically open borders and legalisation of those who came in illegally but have jobs and pay taxes. The “dreamers” are one part of this group; they were brought in by their parents as infants but have become responsible quasi-citizens. The moderates within Biden’s party would like to see more constraints on the entry of people into the country. By bringing up the immigration issue to the forefront, Trump may have succeeded in deflecting attention from the extreme incompetence he and his government showed in handling the Covid-19 crisis.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2020.

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