Rousmaniere: Making Sense of the Turmoil Over Immigration

Peter Rousmaniere

First, take a long view. About every half century since the late 19th century the United States has wavered between a generally open borders approach to a restriction-ist approach. Passage of immigration reform in 1965 began an era of relatively open borders. Today’s fiercely restriction-ist rhetoric, in the long view, arrives about on time.

But the country has never been of one mind on welcoming a lot of the foreign-born. Historically, both major parties had been sundered by internal divisions over immigration policy. That has changed, since the mid 2000s, when sentiment began to seriously separate Republicans from Democrats.

The Trump victory put someone into the White House that was eager to use a box of matches.

It became apparent during 2017 that President Trump intended to use the immigration issue as his main theme running up to the November 2018 elections. It also become apparent that he was not interested in comprehensive immigration reform legislation, or for that matter, any major initiative by Congress, especially one that was bipartisan. He wanted to control the topic through his own rhetoric and by executive branch initiatives.

The Trump rhetoric is impossible to miss. His administrative initiatives, not as much, because they often involve bureaucratic processes and policies that are impenetrable except to immigration insiders. These insiders can point to more than a dozen policy changes, even before considering what may be happening on the Mexican border.

Trump was on seemingly solid political ground for taking a hard restriction-ist approach. Republicans are predisposed to be angry about immigration for two reasons.

First, they are far more pessimistic about the value of immigration then the Democrats. In the past ten years, the Democrats’ view of immigration as strengthening the country has shot up from about 50% to the high 70s. Republican sentiment for this notion has remained flat at about 35%. This divergence, which began to appear during the George W. Bush administration, appears to lock the parties into opposite fixed positions.

The other reason for Republican receptivity on the immigration issue is that they are far more likely than Democrats to be riled up about illegal immigration, and also about crime. The first words spoken by Trump as a candidate merged the two issues.

The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute concluded from 2014 data that legal immigrants had a rate of incarceration that that 31% of that of native-born Americans, and that illegal immigrants had a rate that was 56% of that of natives.

This evidence to the contrary, Trump has shown all along a proclivity to equate illegal immigration with crime as if they were the same thing. In a poll, 80% of Democrats say that the crackdown on illegal immigration is bad and 81% of Republicans say it is good. Trump likely perceives that Democrats are vulnerable in part because Democrats have a hard time addressing the matter of the 11 million unauthorized persons in the country.

What has happened in the past few weeks has impaired the administration’s messaging on the crackdown, as it relates to the Mexican border.

The administration evidently expected that illegal border crossings would subside from the levels experienced in the past ten years. Border Patrol figures for the past few months have shown that is not the case. If one uses federal estimates of successful illegal crossings drawn on the basis of arrests, then at least 100,000 persons, and perhaps many more, will successfully enter illegally through this border during 2018. This news tarnishes the administration’s image of being effective when past administrations were not.

But the main disruption to the administration’s restriction-ist strategy came from its own policy to separate children from the parents arrested at the border. Whenever kids and mothers are involved as collateral damage in crackdowns, the media explodes with stories. A raid on a New Bedford, Mass, backpack manufacturing plant in 2007 prompted news stories about grief-stricken mothers. A Boston businessman paid for the bail of hundreds arrested.

More recently, in April of this year, an ICE raid on a meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tenn., resulted in national news stories about how 600 children failed to show up at local public schools the following day.

Now it turns out that Democrats are viewed as more competent on the immigration issue than Republicans. An early June poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that 48% of persons polled said that Democrats could do a better job dealing with immigration, contrasted with 34% in favor of Republicans on managing the issue. This may mean that as long as immigration remains on the front page, as long as Trump talks about it, Democratic candidates are advantaged.

Behind the scene, bureaucratic initiatives move apace in the administration. But they are so hard to grasp by the public. Aside from rhetoric, the public face of the administration may be one of paralysis — not what the president planned.


Peter Rousmaniere

Peter Rousmaniere is widely known throughout the workers’ compensation industry, both for his writing and consulting experience. Based in the picture perfect New England town of Woodstock, VT, he is a regular on the conference circuit, and is deeply in tune with trends and developments within the industry. His passion is writing and presenting on issues largely related to immigration, and he maintains a blog on the subject at