For years, a central tenet of the immigration debate has been the Republican claim that while the party was opposed to illegal immigration and did not want to reward those who broke the law with an “amnesty,” which in most cases seemed to be defined as anything short of deportation, legal immigrants were welcome to come to the United States and start new lives. Under President Trump, it is now an open question as to whether the GOP has moved from a position of opposing illegal immigration to a more isolationist philosophy that opposes legal immigration as well.
In recent weeks, Trump’s isolationist and anti-immigration positions have been in full view. The president has threatened to close the border with Mexico, a move that would primarily stop the flow of legal travel and trade, and announced to supporters at a border security round table that America “is full.”
“I say, and this is our new statement, the system is full,” Trump said. We can’t take you anymore. Whether it is asylum or anything you want, illegal immigration, we can’t take you anymore. Our country is full. Our area is full. The sector is full. We can’t take you anymore. Sorry, can’t happen. So turn around, that’s the way it is.”
Note that the president specifically includes asylum-seekers in his statement. Under US law, asylum-seekers are legal immigrants by definition. American immigration law states, “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.”
Yesterday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the Trump Administration policy of requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as their case was processed. U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ruled that plaintiffs were likely to prove that the policy violated US regulatory law.
Members of the Trump Administration have argued that the asylum process is being abused, claiming that 80 percent of asylum requests are denied. The Daily Signal pointed out last year that this claim is not supportable, but under the law the Trump Administration is required to process requests for asylum regardless. The denial rate of previous applicants has no bearing on the right of future immigrants to request asylum under US law.
Limiting legal immigration is nothing new for Trump. In fact, restrictions on legal immigration have been the norm for the Trump Administration since its earliest days. One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to sign an Executive Order that banned travel from seven designated countries for 90 days, suspended immigration from Syria indefinitely, and halted the immigration of refugees for 120 days. Since then, the Trump Administration has restricted the number of H1-B temporary work visas, making it difficult for US companies who want to follow the law and hire legal immigrants. The administration has also announced plans to begin revoking work permits for spouses and children of highly-skilled immigrants who do hold work visas. Trump’s unpopular policy of separating children from their parents at the border was applied to legal immigrants seeking asylum as well as illegal immigrants.
Other proposed policies have targeted legal immigrants as well. Last year, President Trump floated the idea of unilaterally reinterpreting the 14th amendment with an Executive Order to end birthright citizenship. The president has not yet followed through on his threat, but such a shift would threaten the constitutional rights of thousands of native-born American citizens.
In the wake of Secretary of Homeland Defense Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure from the Trump Administration, CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that Nielsen’s sins had included protecting the president from his own bad judgment on immigration.
Per Tapper’s sources, Trump ordered Nielson to close the border crossing at El Paso, an action that would have damaged the local economy. Nielsen proposed an alternate plan to slow down legal immigration at several ports of entry, but the president was not satisfied.
The president also wanted to restart the controversial family separation policy, which Nielson argued would cause a public relations problem. A senior administration official told Tapper that the president “just wants to separate families.”
President Trump also ordered her to deny entry to asylum-seekers. Nielsen explained that this would be illegal. The White House counsel agreed with her assessment of the law. The discussion ultimately led to Trump’s statement two weeks later that America “is full.”
“At the end of the day,” the official said, “the President refuses to understand that the Department of Homeland Security is constrained by the laws.”
The country is not full by any means. As a frequent flyer over the Midwest and West, I can assure you that vast swaths of the nation away from the coasts are not crowded at all. The US also does not have a shortage of jobs. More than a third of US rural counties have declining populations and American employers can’t find enough workers to fill available jobs. Neither is there evidence of a wave of violent crime perpetrated by immigrants, either legal or illegal.
There can be little doubt that President Trump is not a fan of immigration. In four short years, the president has gone from talking about a wall with a “big beautiful door” to saying that “our country is full.” For many Americans, the evolution is hardly a surprise. At the meeting with Nielson, another attendee said that Trump was “ranting and raving, saying border security was his issue.”
It’s true that border security is President Trump’s issue and has been since the day he announced his candidacy. A major problem, however, is that he wants to close the border to legal immigrants as well as those who would come illegally. A further problem is that the president is at odds with voters who prefer to keep immigration at current or higher levels by more than a two-to-one margin.
The GOP is at a crossroads. Republicans followed the president and his anti-immigrant policies to a crushing defeat in the 2018 midterm elections. If the party continues down the road to being an anti-immigrant party, Republicans are likely to experience many similar defeats in the future as it further alienates minorities and young voters who have little patience for bigotry.
For years, Republicans have claimed to support legal immigration while working to curb illegal immigration. If the party is still pro-immigrant, it needs to show it before it is too late.