All of my political predictions about Donald Trump were wrong. I predicted that he wouldn’t get the Republican Party nomination despite all of the polls to the contrary. I followed the polls closely during the election and thought Trump would lose. I was wrong again. While certainly no mandate, Trump won the election. Now the policies his administration will implement and push for are what matters. We have very little to go on when it comes to predicting his actions. Trump has no voting record on this and other issues. His statements, actions, a policy paper, and his staff picks are the best indicators of this actions.
My prediction is that Trump will increase the scale and scope of immigration enforcement, rescind President Obama’s executive actions or at a minimum not allow Dreamers renew their status, massively curtail or end the refugee program, and try to convince Congress to cut legal immigration. I’ve been wrong about Trump in the past and I hope I’m wrong here too. Let me lay out evidence that I think supports my pessimism and evidence that supports a more optimistic interpretation.
Optimistic Take: Why Trump Could Not be THAT Bad
Trump is not ideologically grounded except that he is a nationalist and a populist. Those political instincts usually manifest an anti-foreign bias in trade and immigration but they don’t have to. Trump has portrayed himself as a deal maker so it’s possible he’s staked out a harsh immigration position as a bargaining tactic to get concessions elsewhere.
Trump’s personal experiences with his wives and businesses hiring illegal immigrants and guest workers may soften him.
He’s also made some statements in favor of immigration liberalization. In 2011 and 2013, Trump supported legalization for some illegal immigrants. He said Republicans have to do “the right thing” during the 2013 debate over comprehensive immigration reform but refused to elaborate on what he meant by that.
Trump flip-flopped on H-1B visas numerous times during his 2016 campaign, sometimes saying skilled migrants were great and that the United States needs more of them. In every case I’ve found, he then backtracked from the pro-H-1B position, repudiated his earlier statements, or repeated that they are taking American jobs. He’s also said that foreigners who attend U.S. universities should stay. Some lobbyists think Trump will not support broad immigration reform but that he might be persuaded to support liberalizing high-skilled immigration. Lobbyists should know those things but that could also be a public projection of confidence in order to maintain morale.
In his major immigration speech on August 31, 2016, in Phoenix, he said:
“And the establishment of our new lawful immigration system then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals [illegal immigrants] who remain.
That discussion can take place only in an atmosphere in which illegal immigration is a memory of the past, no longer with us, allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time.”
“As far as moving these people out and moving, we either have a country or we don't. We're a country of laws. We either have a border or we don't. Now, you can come back in and you can become a citizen. But it’s very unfair. We have millions of people that did it the right way. They're in line. They're waiting. We're going to speed up the process bigly, because it’s very inefficient. But they're on line and they’re waiting to become citizens.”
That sounds like he wants to deport them or force them to leave but then they can come back through the legal system. He’s made statements in support of letting the “good ones” come back a few times during the campaign, especially in the later stages. Allowing them to come back, especially after deportation, would require significant legal changes. His call to “speed up the process bigly” is encouraging though. Trump could soften his deportation plan much sooner than he let on here if he’s confronted with the logistical and humanitarian nightmare of deporting more than 11 million people.
Pessimistic Interpretation: Why Trump Will Probably be That Bad
Trump is a national populist with a zero-sum worldview. His long opposition to trade with Japan and now China and Mexico shows that he doesn’t understand how voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial. Opinions on trade and immigration are tightly correlated. His 2013 statements on immigration reform could mean that he thought the Senate’s 2013 bill would destroy the Republican Party.
Trump’s immigration position paper is detailed, specific, and terrible. It supports drastic cuts in legal immigration and refugees as well as harsh new enforcement measures like a border wall, mandatory E-Verify, and a greatly expanded deportation force. Many think this plan was inspired by Ann Coulter’s recent book on the subject and some of his statements support that theory. In return, Coulter called Trump’s immigration position paper, “the greatest political document since the Magna Carta.”
When Trump looked like he was wavering from his immigration position in the final week of August 2016, Coulter mocked him. In her recent book In Trump We Trust, she wrote, "There's nothing Trump can do that won't be forgiven . . . Except change his immigration policies." Trump’s response was a blistering speech in Phoenix on August 31, 2016, where he doubled-down on his immigration stance and even read out portions of his position paper. Coulter gave the speech her seal of approval, declaring it “better than Lincoln's Gettysburg address.”
Virtually every time Trump looked like he was wavering in his opposition to legal immigration or stepped up enforcement, he quickly reversed course. When he has spoken off the cuff about immigration, it has almost always been negative and supportive of deportations, cutting legal immigration, and linking immigrants to crime. If speaking off the cuff reveals Trump’s real opinions then they are largely consistent with his policy positions.
Trump’s presumptive picks for positions in his administration are opposed to immigration reform, support more enforcement, and generally favor cutting legal immigration. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the nativist Breitbart News and chief executive office of Trump’s 2016 campaign, looks to be on the shortlist for Chief of Staff. Breitbart’s immigration position is well known.
Trump’s picks for his immigration transition team are uniformly supportive of increased immigration enforcement and, as far as I can tell, large cuts in legal immigration. Kris Kobach is the first member of the transition team. He is the Kansas secretary of state and architect of many of the immigration enforcement laws around the country in the last decade. Just yesterday he said, “the wall is going to get built.” The second member of the transition team is Danielle Cutrona, the chief counsel in Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) judiciary committee.
The connection with Senator Sessions is important and it runs throughout Trump’s other appointments – the Senator himself could even be appointed to an important position. He is the most outspoken Republican Senator who opposes immigration reform, supports enforcement-first policies, and favors slashing legal immigration. Trump is reportedly also considering Stephen Miller, former communications aide to Senator Sessions, for one of many potential positions. Rick Dearborn, Sessions’ chief of staff, is also being considered for leading the office of legislative affairs.
There are also a few leaked lists circulating around DC that say Trump is supposedly considering Cindy Hayden as head of the Department of Homeland Security. There isn’t much information available on Ms. Hayden except that she was Sessions’ former chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions’ praise for Ms. Hayden is deep and effusive. Upon her departure from the Senate in 2008, he said, “Cindy was just fabulous, and I depended on her. Day after day, her work and the respect she engendered throughout the country played a big role in the final result, in which the [immigration reform] bill was pulled down without passage in that form.” Senator Sessions himself wasn’t alone in his praise. He quoted his former chief counsel William Smith and executive director of the Americans for Limited Government Research Foundation at the time, “The only group I know that will truly celebrate her departure will be illegal aliens.” Brian Darling, then director of Senate Relations for the Heritage Foundation, was quoted as saying, “Without Cindy and ‘Team Sessions’’ tireless efforts to educate the American public on the contents of the secretly drafted amnesty bill, the bill may have become law.” Joe Matal, then-counsel for Senator Kyl was also quoted by Sessions as saying that, “If you look closely at the corpse of last year's immigration bill, you will find a series of small squares holes in its back. Those holes were produced by Cindy's heels, stomping that bill to death.”
Trump has frequently cited the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that produces near-uniformly shoddy research and supports cutting legal immigration. It’s safe to assume that Trump facts, specific enforcement ideas, and message on immigration during his administration will be more influenced by them than any other group outside of the government. Ending or severely curtailing refugee resettlement will be an early move.
None of Trump’s actions since his election, from his statements to the people on his immigration transition team to those he’s considering for important positions, indicate that he is changing his position on immigration. Trump looks like he partially wavered occasionally on the campaign when it came to high-skilled immigrants and some form of amnesty. His instincts over the last several years show that his instincts aren’t uniformly nativist. However, those few bits of optimism are overwhelmed by his other statements and actions to the contrary.
Although I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic and I’m hoping my predictions about Trump continue to be as wrong going forward as they have been up to this point, the weight of evidence convinces me that his immigration policies will likely be just as bad as many of us feared. I hope he changes and will gladly eat many humbles pies if he does but I’m not going to skip any meals in anticipation.