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Donald Trump’s cruel immigration politics is a scam

His entire approach is based on big lies.

Irfan Khan/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s White House has now offered three conflicting reasons for why it is breaking up families seeking asylum at the border. It’s a deterrent. It’s Democrats’ fault. It’s not even a real policy at all.

This is a moment to confront the reality that Trump’s claims about family separation aren’t just messaging confusion or elements of a dishonest sales job. It’s cruelty that is just one piece of Trump’s dishonest approach to immigration.

Trump’s core argument, that he rode from the Trump Tower escalator into the White House and has carried through to every aspect of immigration policy, is that reducing the number of foreign-born people living in the United States will leave native-born people richer and safer. That isn’t true.

While Trump delivers concrete material benefits to wealthy business executives in the form of tax cuts and industry-friendly regulation, what he’s offering his working-class backers is that cracking down on foreigners will solve their problems and that his willingness to suffer the condemnation of cosmopolitans is a token of his dedication to their interests.

It’s a con.

Trump’s immigration preferences will make America poorer

The kids held hostage at the border are, in large part, pawns in a larger game by which Trump is trying to coerce Democrats into backing sweeping reforms to legal immigration.

The core of these reforms is to simultaneously switch the United States to what Trump calls a “merit-based” system — essentially raising the average educational attainment of legal immigrants — while also cutting the overall number of immigrants. The net impact of this, according to the people at the Penn-Wharton budget model, would be to reduce America’s per capita GDP by about 0.3 percent in the long run while reducing overall GDP much more than that because the population is lower.

Obviously we care primarily about per-person wealth, from which vantage point Trump’s proposal is bad but not catastrophic, but the aggregate figure does matter because, as the Urban Institute’s Damir Cosic and Richard W. Johnson observe, the smaller population would have a much harder time supporting America’s retirement programs. Under Trump’s plan, they write, “revenues would fall faster than expenditures, raising the present value of Social Security’s unfunded future obligations by $1.5 trillion, or 13 percent, over the next 75 years.”

What’s more, immigration impacts different groups differently. Specifically, as Heidi Shierholz, Adam Looney, and other economists have shown, immigration seems to raise wages for native-born workers while lowering pay for other immigrants. In other words, while the Trump-induced labor shortages in California farms may end up raising pay for other immigrant farmworkers in the Central Valley, it’s going to mean higher food prices for Trump voters in the Rust Belt.

Of course, Trump’s core pitch on immigration has always been about fear rather than economics, but here, too, his policies are a disaster.

Trump is peddling nonsense on immigrants and crime

Trump launched his campaign by explaining that we needed to build a wall to keep out a wave of rapists and murderers surging across our southern border, and this kind of politics of physical threat has been at the core of almost everything he’s said and done on immigration. And he keeps saying it even as study after study shows he’s wrong.

Now, of course, it’s true that even though immigrants commit violent crimes at a low rate and places with more immigrants have lower crime rates, neither immigrants nor immigrant-heavy cities have a zero crime rate. Every murder and assault is a tragedy, and MS-13 really is a vicious bunch of killers.

But virtually everything Trump is doing on immigration is counterproductive to the goal of addressing the problem of transnational organized crime. It was, after all, the Obama administration that in its final years ordered immigration enforcement services to lay off the vast majority of law-abiding unauthorized immigrants and target their efforts at apprehending violent criminals. Obama’s goal, ultimately foiled by the courts and by Trump’s election, was to give work permits to millions and then sic Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection on the gangs Trump claims to be fighting.

But immigration enforcement officials themselves — backed up by congressional Republicans — didn’t like the idea of being turned into a kind of auxiliary police force. They semi-successfully stymied Obama’s efforts to concentrate on violent criminals, helped Trump get elected, and now we are doing things like deporting a 62-year-old legal permanent resident over a 20-year-old misdemeanor and a Kansas college professor who’s lived here for 30 years over a 2012 traffic stop instead of focusing on gang members.

Even worse, by doing things like canceling Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of long-settled immigrants (and trying to cancel Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Trump is greatly expanding the universe of nonviolent unauthorized immigrants and making it that much less likely that law enforcement resources will be used against violent criminals.

Trump isn’t doing anything about the Central American security crisis

Last but by no means least, it’s noteworthy that on the subject of asylum-seeking Central American families and unaccompanied minors, Trump isn’t just being cruel — cruelty is his only policy.

No administration would want to see America flooded with would-be refugees, especially given the reality that most of these asylum applications are going to be denied. But a president who evinced actual concern about the issue would be trying to do something to address the underlying issues that are driving people north.

But Trump isn’t convening a summit with Central American governments to discuss a cooperate approach to improving public safety. He hasn’t even nominated an assistant secretary of state for the region after 500 days in office. Rather than try to collaborate with Mexico on improving the situation at the border, he’s used offensive rhetoric to make any kind of cooperation with Trump politically toxic there while filling the diplomatic pipeline with a pointless drive to renegotiate NAFTA, the counterproductive unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal, and stunt summits with Kim Jong Un.

Meanwhile, his various budget proposals continually call for cuts to foreign aid and criminal justice grant programs. So far, fortunately, Congress hasn’t gone along with this, but as a brilliant investigative report by Danielle Ivory revealed over the weekend, his federal hiring freeze has left prisons dangerously understaffed and unable to police contraband mobile phones or maintain safe conditions.

The insecure conditions that serve as a push factor for Central Americans are a genuinely hard problem that any administration would struggle with to an extent, but Trump isn’t even trying.

His only idea is to do everything in his power to try to make the American government even more cruel and terrifying than MS-13 — an approach that will only work if we ultimately end up going to even darker places than the current “children in cages” scenario that’s unfolding in Texas. Because the whole thing is, fundamentally, a scam.

Trump’s immigration politics is a con

Not surprisingly, tearing children from their parents’ arms doesn’t poll well.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t work for Trump politically. As detailed by Arlie Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land and Justin Gest in The New Minority, Trump’s white working-class base sees a world in which cultural elites have marginalized their concerns in favor of caring a lot about the problems of immigrants and minorities. Hochschild explicates this worry in terms of line-jumping, while Gest explains it in terms of circles of concern, but fundamentally, her study of Louisiana and his study of Ohio are saying the same thing — white working-class voters see a zero-sum battle for attention and sympathy in which caring about immigrants’ problems means neglecting their own.

Such voters may not necessarily approve of cruel treatment of Central American asylum seekers, but at the end of the day, the message that Trump is perhaps excessively cruel to foreigners emphasizes the notion that he is on their side.

But it isn’t true.

Trump knows how to deliver concrete wins to interest groups he cares about, whether that’s letting insurance companies discriminating against people with preexisting medical conditions, letting financial advisers deliberately give clients bad advice, letting chemical companies poison children’s brains, or delivering tax cuts that push bank profits to record levels.

By contrast, nothing he’s doing on immigration is actually going to help anyone with anything. He has no answer to the surge of asylum seekers, is implementing policies that will worsen crime, and is seeking broad policy changes that will lower wages and incomes for native-born Americans. And of course, there’s absolutely nothing in Trump’s career to suggest that he has any aptitude for or interest in genuine problem-solving. He’s a brand marketer and a flimflam man who had to make a $21 million civil fraud payout about his fake university shortly before taking office and is now facing a new fraud lawsuit over his fake charity.

The cruelty, too, is essentially a fraudulent branding exercise meant to make people who resent immigrants think that he cares about them. Immigrant kids will pay the highest price of all for the deception, but the reality is that nobody is going to gain except for Trump himself.

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