By Jim Swift
As Donald Trump surges in a recent poll (albeit one with a small sample size) many are wondering whether Trump’s views on immigration represents the views of ordinary Americans. In Washington, the media writ large is asking, nay, suggesting, that his popularity is proof that Republicans are (insert editorializing declarative statement here).
This, of course, comes on the heels of Trump’s unfortunate and poorly worded remarks about illegal immigration. In case you missed it, and if you’ve watched television in the past month, I doubt you have, Trump said in a speech announcing his candidacy for President that “(illegal immigrants from Mexico are) bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”
I wouldn’t look too much into Trump’s stupidly expressed ramblings. Trump represents Trump, and his popularity is more an endorsement of the manner in which Trump expresses his views: which is to say casually and with complete disregard to nuance. Which is pretty much how every discussion of immigration goes, whether it’s on cable news, talk radio, or at a local watering hole. Nobody wants to get nerdy because it’s easier to deal in broad platitudes. And, frankly, because most people don’t know the first thing about the nuts and bolts of immigration outside of lawyers, business owners, bureaucrats, politicians, and immigrants.
John Derbyshire, a former writer at National Review (who had been a topic of recent controversy) wrote an interesting essay on his experience as an illegal immigrant back in 2003. One line jumped out at me when I first read this as a college student: “It is a peculiarity of Americans that they cannot be brought to think seriously about immigration.” Here, Donald Trump isn’t helping by oversimplifying things … and neither is the outrage peddling media.
Now, Derbyshire is more of a restrictionist in terms of immigration. Some argue no restrictions at all, while others argue no new immigration. I’d say most ordinary Americans fall somewhere in the middle: do we give workers with certain skills preferences, or do we do a lottery? It’s a simple binary choice here, but once we delve into specific details like point-system immigration regimes, it’s turtles all the way down. Nonetheless, it’s important that we talk details.
Can you tell me the difference between an H1-B and H2-A visas? Can Anderson Cooper? Can Donald Trump? I don’t know if they can. I have a vague notion of what each are, but couldn’t tell you specifics on limits or requirements. But, the point is that this is muddy stuff, and if we leave the details to the nerds in the nerdery and allow our politicians and so-called “thought leaders” to get away with vague platitudes, we are worse off.
Trump is doing well because people are frustrated, but Trump is doing a poor job of expressing why people are frustrated, and what we should do about it. He’s rudderless — he’s found fuel, but can’t get to a destination.
Generally, Republicans like it when candidates tout their immigrant family heritage (see: Rubio, Marco and Cruz, Ted) and simultaneously push for a strong border security regime. “We have nothing against legal immigration” they claim, as they rightly criticize the government’s amnesty and inability to enforce a secure border — or even manage a visa program. A lot of illegal immigrants are visa overstayers.
It would be nice if Trump’s follies on immigration were yielding a serious reflection on immigration by voters, but I am not convinced that it’s the case. Rather, I think Trump is just catering to folks who already have their minds made up.
Yes, some illegal immigrants are rapists, some are murderers, and some are drug pushers. Some are human traffickers — modern day slave traders. There’s a humane side to a good, legal immigration system, but Donald Trump has largely thrown away the opportunity to talk about it because he’s done such a poor job from the onset of his candidacy. Mind you, we’ll always have some sort of illegal immigration, no matter how hard we try. And at the end of the day, some Americans are rapists, murderers, drug pushers, and human traffickers.
Point being: saints will become sinners, and sinners saints. It’s one thing to argue: “Hey, don’t let that unskilled applicant with a long rap sheet get a green card” and quite another to paint with a broad brush, as Trump has. For now, the broad brush approach seems to be working for Trump.
But over in the current events department, we get to the even more troublesome part, at least politically when it comes to reform. When discussing red tape in taxes or regulations, nearly all right-leaning hands go up when asked if the government should make things easier on people. Immigration is often a curious exception. (Even for once-illegal immigrants like John Derbyshire.)
Complicating things is the matter of Kate Steinle. She was murdered in San Francisco — a sanctuary city, which means that it doesn’t cooperate with federal authorities in enforcing immigration law— by an illegal immigrant with five deportations on his record using a gun stolen from a government law enforcement officer. Trump unwisely used her death as “yet another example of why we must secure our border.” Steinle’s brother, who claims not to share Trump’s “far right” views (in that a wall or fence on the border isn’t necessary) was mad about Trump’s referring to her death to make a political point.
Of course, anything can be made into a political point these days, but it gets dicey when you refer to the deaths of innocents. It’s hard to do so and not seem like an opportunist, as Donald Trump has learned. Do sensible immigration reformers with a right-leaning perspective want Donald Trump to be their standard bearer? They shouldn’t.
As someone who wants to see our immigration system reformed and simplified, border security increased, and sanctuary cities effectively eliminated, Trump is actually digging a hole for those individuals (and candidates) who want and fewer drug pushers, murderers, and rapists on the streets, be they citizens or illegal immigrants.
How much time has been spent discussing Trump? Too much. CNN mentioned him 239 times in 24 hours. Other candidates, more serious candidates, have had to waste time reacting to Trump when they, who have a statistical chance of becoming president, could have been sharing their plan.
Trump may have Chris Christie-esque qualities out on the campaign trail. While that’s nice, I’d observe that John McCain also shared that virtue, having coined the “Straight Talk Express.” He ran for president twice and lost both times.
Does “Straight Talk” work? If it’s more than just a marketing gimmick, who knows? Until then, consider me skeptical.
Jim Swift is a journalist in Washington, D.C., with roots in western Ohio. A Cleveland native, his dad is from Piqua and mom from Sidney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.