Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear
On the morning of Jan. 11, 2018, Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, received a phone call from the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, summoning him to the White House. Durbin had been working for months with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, on a deal to grant legal status to the so-called “Dreamers” — children who had been brought illegally into the country by their parents when they were very young, had grown up here and knew only the United States as home. The news from Trump was encouraging. “Wow,” Durbin told an aide. “I think we may actually have a deal.”
Durbin and Graham — who received a similar call that morning — expected a private meeting with the president, but as they waited in the West Wing lobby a phalanx of hard-liners arrived, led by Stephen Miller, the young mastermind of Trump’s draconian immigration policies. Were they being ambushed? Durbin wondered. Indeed, they were. The meeting lapsed into a notorious Trump rant — about accepting immigrants from “shithole countries.” The president seemed amazed by the Durbin-Graham proposal: “Wait a minute — why do we want people from Haiti here?” Why not more people from Norway? Graham was flabbergasted: What had happened between 10 a.m., when the president called offering the deal, and noon, when the historic Oval Office tirade had taken place? “I don’t know where that guy” — the more amenable Trump — “went,” Graham told the homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen days later. “I want him back.”
Trump’s bigoted eruption was instant news. But the context provided by the New York Times journalists Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear in their exquisitely reported “Border Wars” reveals the shattering horror of the moment, the mercurial unreliability and instability of the president. Davis and Shear perform this contextual service time and again throughout their book, which is essential reading for those searching for the “beating heart” of the Trump administration. The authors argue it is immigration policy, and who can dispute that? From his very first news conference as a presidential candidate, when he denounced Mexican border-crossers as rapists and criminals, a rancid nativism — aimed at people who have darker skins than Norwegians — has been Trump’s tribalist weapon of choice, his scalpel prodding the worst impulses of the American spirit.
Nativism isn’t as American as apple pie — indeed, it is the very opposite of our country’s heterogeneous intention — but it has been with us since the Irish began arriving in droves in the mid-19th century. It has almost always been a minor chord in American politics, but it has flared from time to time — with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the harsh restrictions on southern and eastern Europeans in 1924, and again today, 50 years after Lyndon Johnson liberalized immigration policy in 1965.
Davis and Shear are scrupulously fair reporters. They give Trump’s minions a respectful hearing. The current immigration system is, indeed, a mess. The Dreamers are, technically, here illegally, as are many others who overstay their visas or apply for refugee status and simply disappear into the population. There are reasonable reforms on offer, like favoring immigrants with skills over the current system based on family ties (“chain migration”), non-nativist reforms that countries like Canada and Australia have adopted.
But the Trump administration’s “remedies” have been flagrantly — and purposefully — punitive. The astonishing policy of separating children from their parents at the border was imposed as a deterrent: An experiment at the El Paso portal showed that illegal crossing declined 64 percent when word got out that children would be taken from their parents at the border. Stephen Miller took it national. An internal Department of Homeland Security memo noted “harm to children is being deliberately used for its deterrent effect.”
Davis and Shear are at their best describing the chaotic inner processes of the administration. They are less successful when they attempt to describe the effects of the crackdown on actual human beings — or give insight into the perpetrators of the Trump policies. They wait 280 pages to offer a biographical sketch of Miller, which raises more questions than it answers. He is the descendant of Jewish refugees, it turns out. His family owns a chain of grocery stores. He grew up in ultra-blue Santa Monica, Calif., but distinguished himself from the crowd as a right-wing provocateur in high school. He rose through congressional staff ranks and became a top aide to the immigrant-phobic Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. His co-workers think he’s a nice guy. But his policies — and his pursuit of them — are stunningly heartless. We need to know more about him.
In this account, Trump is as he ever was: craven, feckless, moody, narcissistic, mendacious, forgetful. He is sympathetic to the Dreamers he meets in private, but is willing to place their lives and futures in jeopardy to feed the passions of his supporters. He is addicted to inflaming the basest instincts of his base. And it is all a show.
“This is why people loved me on ‘The Apprentice,’” Trump told House Speaker Paul Ryan, after bragging about nonexistent “ratings” for yet another ballistic meeting in the Oval Office. There is no distinction between reality and reality TV for this president. In 2016, it was a distinction that escaped the American public as well. Davis and Shear are right: Immigration demagogy is at the “heart” of the Trump show — and the Trump show is at the heart of our tragic decline as a civil and humane society.
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