President Trump has identified illegal immigrants as being a major factor in the diminution of wages in this country. Recently that conversation has morphed from illegal immigration to all immigration as close Trump advisors Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller advocate a nationalist agenda which includes new limitations on legal immigration. These positions in and of themselves betray the ignorance of how public policy and market forces have conspired to create the problems for which the President’s supporters seek relief. But, while worthy of discussion, a detailed analysis of the causes of depressed wages and the actual impact of immigration, both legal and illegal, on crime and the economy is outside the scope of this post because it requires a lengthy analysis of the nexus between policy, the motivation of policy advocates, and the reality of the problems we face. This post is simply an examination of Donald Trump’s appeal and the hollow and ultimately damaging nature of his policy prescriptions.
Donald Trump has an appeal that has stymied and mystified those on the political left and center. For most people who do not stand to gain personally from his agenda, who follow politics, and have some understanding of policy and how government and the economy works, his style, message, and methods are as un-American as McCarthyism, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Japanese Internment. Yet his supporters (approximately 45% of the electorate) remain steadfast in their support for him, excusing or explaining away every constitutional or normative offense. Why?
Lexington of The Economist explains in that publication’s most recent editorial offering that Mr. Trump appeals to approximately 45% of the electorate by depicting America as “a great nation under siege from hostile forces: whether those might be criminal aliens, terrorists, radical Muslims, drug dealers, feckless allies or rival trading powers trying to cheat and take advantage of the country.” He claims that all “these menaces can be beaten, and ‘dying industries will come roaring back to life’ once America puts ‘its own citizens first,’ [promising] to look out for his sort of Americans: decent, law-abiding folk, working men and women, the ‘forgotten’ middle classes who in his telling have been deliberately betrayed by elites who chose to send their jobs abroad for personal gain.”
This is a very powerful message which is not altogether wrong. For far too long our political elites, from the left, right, and center, have told us that things are getting better. Those elites blame each other for every dip in the DOW or spike in unemployment. And then claim credit when the market recovers and the jobless rate settles below 5% again. They all ignore the fact that the DOW is relevant to only those who can afford to invest in the market and that the unemployment rate is tied to unemployment benefits claims, that those no longer eligible to receive benefits are not counted. Meanwhile, as found last year by the Pew Research Center, our middle class has continued to shrink, median incomes have fallen, and the lower and upper classes have grown. None of them bother to address the systemic problems leading to Americans working ever harder for an ever shrinking piece of the pie. And globalization is a ripe scapegoat.
Globalization was billed to Americans as an agent for change in the developing world, raising the standard of living in poorer countries and providing greater trade opportunities for American Companies and consequently greater benefits to their employees, the American worker. While the overall job growth rate has continued to trend upward over time, we have nevertheless seen Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” of manufacturing jobs become a reality with nothing to replace them but relatively low paying service industry jobs. But the problem is not with globalization itself, but rather in the way we have adopted globalization as a policy, a distinction that is lost on most people it seems.
One of the problems with our implementation of globalization is that there has been no effort to enforce in signatory countries the labor standards embedded in trade agreements like NAFTA which, when coupled with the removal of trade barriers in those same countries, created incentives too great for manufacturing to resist. And with no serious effort in this country to re-train our labor force for the jobs worthy of our comparatively higher wages, American workers are left to work multiple lower paying jobs to simply make ends meet. While we have in fact seen substantial progress in a variety of areas in this country, those advances are mostly in the social rather than economic realm: repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Marriage Equality; Health Insurance Reform. Such gains are critical to the improvement of the lives of all of our citizens, but they are simply not enough to address the problems faced by most of our citizens.
The result is the feeling that working hard and playing by the rules garners less and less, and in many instances works a disadvantage. This feeling is both palpable and justified. It is relief from this issue for which the American electorate has been seeking a solution since at least 2008. It is why Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Donald Trump are so popular. The Democratic Party leadership eschewed the candidates that spoke about these issues, choosing instead to offer more of the same, which the electorate rejected. And the problem with Donald Trump is that he demonstrates no understanding of the complexity of the problems we face and offers no real solution, other than his own half-baked schemes and the disproven policy goals of his arch-conservative allies. This truth is evident in his immigration policy where his methods will cost too much, accomplish too little, and normalize the police-state.
First, President Trump has ended the “Catch and Release” program whereby people caught crossing the border without permission were often released into the US while their request for Asylum winds through the immigration system. The asylum process currently takes between a year and a half and three years just to have an initial interview. And now that the “Catch and Release” program has ended, the government has no choice but to expand its detention facilities, which has already been ordered, because there are currently no places in which to hold such people while their applications are pending. That is a long time to hold someone seeking shelter from war and crime and poverty. And it is a long time to pay for their detention. The cost, while a boon to private prison corporations, will be enormously expensive and nothing but a drain on the tax payer. Moreover, such people, who would otherwise be working and contributing to our economy, will now languish in detention camps, costing money that need not be spent.
The President has also directed ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to discontinue the deportation prioritization of gang members, felons, and those who otherwise pose a security threat. This means ICE agents can now focus on picking up and removing anyone charged with or convicted of any criminal offense, or no offense at all. We now know how ICE will implement this policy: nationwide raids by immigration agents who are now making collateral arrests of people who happen to be around regardless of warrant; checking the identification of all deplaning passengers on a domestic flight; removing a woman from hospital where she awaited treatment for a brain tumor and placing her back in federal detention where she awaits a decision on her asylum application. Warrantless collateral arrests are of questionable constitutionality, warrantless and indiscriminate searches are clearly unconstitutional, and pulling a patient out of hospital is simply immoral, regardless of the treatment ICE claims to be giving in the detention center.
The president has also ordered immigration officials to make greater use of the “Expedited Removal” process authorized by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Expedited Removal allows the government to quickly deport undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. a short time without first having to go before a judge (children travelling alone must first go before a judge). Expedited Removal is clearly an unconstitutional violation of due process guarantees applicable to all persons present in the United States, regardless of immigration status.
The president has promised to restore a program titled 287(g) which allows the Department of Homeland Security to train local police to work as de facto federal immigration officers. Such officers are responsible for identifying undocumented immigrants in their jails and communities and turning them over to ICE. President Obama scaled down the scope of the program, emphasizing instead the Priority Enforcement Program which does fingerprinting and issues notices but does not ask local law enforcement for detainers. He did this because of discriminatory practices such as racial profiling and unconstitutional searches and seizures.
In addition to the history of unconstitutional implementation of this program by local law enforcement, an expanded scale and scope of 287(g) will see local law enforcement working at cross-purposes: tasked with enforcing federal immigration law while also bound to enforce local and state law. Undocumented immigrants witness crime. We certainly want their willing testimony to convict criminals. They can also be victims of rape, murder, domestic violence, and human trafficking. We do not want people to be raped, murdered, or prostituted in our country. But no one in the country without documentation will ever report a crime, witnessed or victimized by it, if they know they will be deported. The only thing they will do upon sight of the police is run. This outcome is not only immoral, it makes us less safe, not more. It is not acceptable to tolerate the victimization of an entire class of people. Moreover, violent offenders tend not to discriminate based on status.
Tellingly, the President and his administration is glaringly silent on the other half of the illegal immigration problem, such as it is: employers. There is zero talk about increasing enforcement and enhancement of laws prohibiting the hiring of undocumented workers. This is a common sense approach that will certainly cost less and require no inhumane or constitutionally questionable acts on the part of government. Why? As long as there is a demand for undocumented labor, workers from the poorest countries will continue to find a way here to fill those jobs. It is our toleration of the exploitation of such workers by our employers that creates the problem. Failing to address the employer component exposes the President’s diagnosis and prescription for what it is, smoke and mirrors.
But do not expect his supporters to give up on him when his policies prove fruitless. They have already demonstrated a willingness to forgive anything. And he has framed the national conversation in such a way that his supporters can dismiss every fact that demonstrates his ignorance and the misguided nature of his policies. Meanwhile, in classic sleight-of-hand fashion, while we spend all of our time focusing on Mr. Trump and his outlandish antics, his conservative allies in Congress will gut the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and every other program that provides a little relief to the average American struggling to get by.
-Jules Butler (Born to a family of mixed political sympathies and raised in San Diego, California, Jules earned undergraduate degrees in political science and history from The University of California Los Angeles, and graduated with honors from the Seattle University School of Law. He practices law in the Greater Seattle area, where he lives with his wife and two children.)