President Trump suffered a reelection defeat last week, but the Democrats are unlikely to take the Senate and they lost seats in the House of Representatives. The best consistent explanation for these cross‐partisan outcomes is that the electorate rejected Trump without embracing the Democrats. To the extent that voters rejected Trump because of his policies – a big qualification considering his bad luck on COVID-19 and his notorious style – immigration was the main policy issue of his administration.
President Trump fulfilled much of his immigration agenda. Trump’s 2016 immigration plan called for reducing legal immigration by about 63 percent – and he exceeded that goal by the last half of 2020. He abused the power of the president by issuing over 400 executive actions to restrict legal immigration to the United States. From the early travel bans to the public charge rule to regulations on the H-1B visas, closing the borders, and siphoning Congressionally appropriated money to building a border wall, Trump was wildly successful in pushing his immigration policy.
But President Trump was less successful on some mostly symbolic areas of immigration policy. He built less than 10 miles of the border wall and Mexico didn’t pay for it, he didn’t institute nation‐wide E‐Verify, and the increase in removals from the interior of the United States much smaller than promised. But those weren’t the key issues to immigration restrictionists who consistently said that cutting legal immigration was their main objective. But are nativists really going to argue that he failed to deliver on immigration because he failed to build a wall? They will try, but so far they’ve never argued that and some have even gone so far as to say the rhetoric about the wall was merely shorthand for broader immigration restriction.
The United States government tried Trump’s immigration policy. In addition to hurting the economy, it was not popular. Immigration’s popularity continued to grow during the Trump administration. Even Republican support for legal immigration grew during the Trump administration. This was, at least partly, a response to the pictures and audio released of immigration enforcement in action and the brutal way that many administration officials and President Trump himself talked about illegal immigrants.
To the extent the 2020 election was about policy issues, and it might not have been much about policy, the biggest difference between Trump and Biden was on the issue of immigration. Biden called for increasing legal immigration, legalizing illegal immigrants, reducing enforcement, and rescinding Trump’s executive actions. On the biggest policy issue and difference between the candidates, Trump lost.
Public opinion has shifted in favor of immigration because Trump’s rhetoric and actions exposed just how crude and brutal nativism can be. As immigration restrictionist Reihan Salam wrote before the 2016 election, Trump is the “spokesman for restricting immigration” and “[w]hether or not you agree with every harebrained utterance that issues forth from Donald Trump’s mouth, you [immigration restrictionists] will have to answer for his toxic mix of ignorance, arrogance, and lazy bigotry for years to come.” Salam is correct – President Trump killed respectable, polite, and well‐mannered nativism and replaced it with rude, crude, and poorly‐mannered nativism. If I were a polite and well‐mannered immigration restrictionist, and there are many, then I would be furious. As somebody working to liberalize American immigration policy, President Trump deserves my thanks for creating that legacy. Thank you, Mr. President.