Immigration policy has always fostered tension at the heart of US politics, and it has played a central role in the 2016 election campaign. Numerous efforts in recent decades to manage the challenges posed by migration, notably border control, employment verification, and how to legalise the presence of undocumented migrants, have failed and faced Congressional deadlock.
This intransigence left Obama with little choice other than to bypass Congress and issue executive orders for reform. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012 and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) in 2014 bear resemblance to bills that failed to clear Congress. DACA applies to 1.7 million people, offering those who entered the US as minors work permits and exemption from deportation. DAPA applies to 5 million Americans with illegal immigrant parents, but is currently the subject of a Supreme Court case. While the administration has overseen the deportation of 2 million undocumented migrants, these orders have attempted to grant a reprieve for millions of unauthorised persons.
Immigration policy issues do not fit neatly into the confines of party politics. Members of Congress who have proposed bills for reform in recent years have crossed the floor to do so, notably the “Gang of Eight” Republican and Democrat Senators who wrote a promising comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013. Despite bipartisanship on the issue, American voters have never faced choices on immigration so intensely bifurcated as those offered by the 2016 presidential candidates.
Hillary Clinton’s policies for immigration emphasise naturalisation and a path to citizenship for migrants as favoured by 65% of the US public. While not a panacea for the problems related to immigration reform, her proposals are sound. Clinton would defend Obama’s executive orders despite legal wrangling, and uphold existing immigration laws with procedures, such as deportation, being executed humanely. Her policies aim to keep immigrant families together in America, promote the benefits they bring to the country, and to present her as the champion of hard-working migrants.
In contrast, Trump’s radical proposals are littered with antagonistic rhetoric and have captured the attention of the world’s media. His three-fold plan includes a promise to build an “impenetrable… beautiful wall” at the Mexican border, tougher law enforcement, and emphasises “putting Americans first”. These simplistic policies appeal to millions, mining a rich seam of antipathy at immigration. A hard-line stance is offered as the cure for America’s problems, an easy scapegoat in the pursuit of electoral success. Aside from recognising how offensive and hyperbolic his statements are, a closer examination of Trump’s policies reveals significant shortcomings.
Trump has repeatedly conflated “Immigration Security” and “National Security”, two concepts he has linked closely following the explosions in New York and New Jersey this month. This securitises immigration policy and ignores the complexities of this issue that encompass social, economic and political aspects. Trump has claimed that present policies allowed terrorists to carry out these attacks and has renewed calls for the “extreme vetting” of migrants, namely Muslims. Demonising a particular minority panders to a “silent majority” tired of “political correctness”, creating a perception of threat to bolster his support.
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This suggestion that immigration facilitates terrorism is baseless. One does not need to be foreign-born to commit mass terrorism atrocities – consider Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. Furthermore, in lauding violent crimes committed by undocumented migrants as further evidence of their inherent immorality, Trump overlooks the fact that the crime rate among the immigrant population is lower than that of the general population. Clinton is right to counter that extremists, not an entire ethnic or religious group, must be tackled in the fight against terror, and that Trump will drive those at risk of radicalisation into the arms of jihadist groups.
Projecting a “tough” stance on immigration has augmented Trump’s appeal among white voters, and he is over-performing in the demographic of white males without college degrees. But this support comes at a cost: Trump’s immigration proposals alienate a demographic of growing importance. Hispanic voters currently account for 10% of the electorate, or 28 million eligible voters, and will prove vital to the outcome of the election. In 2012 Obama won 72% of the Hispanic vote and these voters delivered key states, such as Florida, that hold a large number of Electoral College seats. Obama won the state and its 29 seats by a margin of 0.88%, demonstrating the importance of mobilising Hispanics in this state that make up 17% of its electorate.
By taking such an abrasive stance on an issue so close to many Latinos, who may have immigrant parents or family members, Trump is ignoring their importance in securing the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. Clinton’s immigration policies, plus her choice of a Spanish-speaking vice presidential nominee in Tim Kaine, illustrate her recognition of how vital this portion of the electorate is to victory. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Kaine switched seamlessly between Spanish and English and praised the moral values of Latino communities. Clinton has a 38-point lead over Trump among Hispanics. To aggravate this key demographic with insensitive remarks and militant policies is electorally foolish.
The silent pitfall of Trump’s proposals is their lack of substance. They boast vague, tautological statements steeped in sentiment with continual reference to “the nation” rather than clear goals for implementation. Shock tactics are employed to garner approval, and public support for his campaign relies more on this than reference to facts or plans for execution. Take the resolute promise to deport unauthorised migrants. No timescale has been proposed for the deportation of 11 million people. No distinction is made between long-term residents and new arrivals. No detail is given as to how the economic shock of losing millions of workers would be absorbed, or how the $12 billion that undocumented migrants pay in social security annually would be replaced. Vociferous statements are not policy prescriptions.
On Monday, the presidential candidates will undertake their first televised debate. The public perception of who “wins” will crucially influence election polls that are almost level. National security up for debate, and it may descend into a discussion about immigration. Evocative images and anecdotes will be invoked by both candidates, of families torn apart by deportation versus a narrative vilifying migrants. In this arena, we must brace ourselves for more sensationalist statements and provocative reiterations of hollow policy from Trump.