For weeks, one of the complaints against Donald Trump has been his failure to get specific about what policies his rhetoric would seem to require. Yesterday, on the issue of immigration, he published a plan and we all may be wishing he had kept it vague. The specifics, such as they are, horrify.
Mr. Trump repeats his call for a wall along the southern border that would be impenetrable, one that would be paid for by the Mexicans. How to get a sovereign nation to pay for an expense on our government’s to-do list? He would “impound” remittances from illegal wages. He does not explain how he would do that. When I go to the corner store to buy a bottle of wine, would I soon encounter a federal marshal standing next to the Western Union booth? He also says he would increase fees on all temporary visas for Mexican CEOs and diplomats. Surely, Mr. Trump knows that such fees would count as a business expense and people are not averse to spending more when the company is paying for something. I am not sure how much money increased fees would raise.
Of course, as many as 40 percent of undocumented immigrants come to this country legally, but overstay their visa. Trump has a plan for this problem. He would apparently deploy thousands of federal agents to track them down, monitor their movements, make sure they leave when they are supposed to leave. He does not speculate about the effect this would have on the tourism business, in which Trump has made millions. Would there be an ICE desk next to the concierge desk at every Trump hotel in the country?
Trump supports E-verify, so that employers could check the immigration status of all new hires. The other day, I had to go to the nearby Home Depot. Along the side of the parking lot were more than a dozen men, who may or may not have had work permits. They were picked up by contractors looking for day laborers. They would probably be paid in cash. I am not sure how E-verify would work in such situations and neither is Mr. Trump. Would ICE agents, those not stationed in the hotels or Western Union offices, deploy to the parking lots of every Home Depot in the country?
Mr. Trump’s suggestion that the undocumented, all or almost all of the 11 million, be deported is a mark of sheer lunacy. Again, does the party of small government so hate Latinos that it would pay for and construct the vast increase in federal police power such deportations would require? How much would that cost? At a time when the international community can scarcely handle the refugee crisis in Syria, how and who would handly the refugee crisis Trump wishes to create?
The most pernicious part of Trump’s proposal is to do away with birthright citizenship. Why let a little thing like the 14th Amendment to the Constitution stand in the way. To be clear, the 14th Amendment is one of the outstanding achievements of our political culture. My father was the son of Polish immigrants and at the time of his birth he was considered, legally and practically, an American citizen. Why should it be different for the children of Latino immigrants today? Or the children of Irish immigrants, for there are an increasing number of undocumented Irish today? And Poles too? Go back far enough in any of our families, and someone who was not a citizen gave birth to someone who was. Mr. Trump says that we must do away with birthright citizenship because it is a magnet. Why not celebrate the fact that so many people around the world who want to come to the U.S.? Why not see immigrants as a blessing?
That last question is not rhetorical. There is a reason that Latino immigrants are not seen as a blessing in a country that consists of immigrants. They are non-white. Let’s be honest about the degree of simple racism that animates the Trump surge in the polls. In the beginning of the last century, similar concerns were voiced about non-Aryan immigrants, about Slavs and Italians and other, mostly Catholic, immigrants overwhelming America’s white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant gene pool. In the 1920s, our nation enacted severe limits on immigration, specifically directed at these new populations. People who are different threaten the identity of any social, political, economic establishment, and when they look a little different, more swarthy, or speak a different language, Polish or Spanish, that identity feels even more threatened. The Irish in the nineteenth century were as white as British-American immigrants and then it was enough that they were Catholic, and a bit more rowdy, to ignite the nativism of that era. It is a commonplace to say that slavery is the original sin of America, and so it is, but not only because of the institutional dehumanization of black Americans that slavery entailed, but because of the racism that justified it. Today, that racism is deployed against Latino immigrants, resulting in this tide of anti-immigrant fervor that is consuming the Republican Party.
Mr. Trump may or may not have staying power as a candidate. His political demise has been assumed, but he keeps going up in the polls. Yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker got caught up in some ridiculous statements about birthright citizenship as a direct result of Trump announcing his plan. Later, Walker walked back his comments. Any Republican who challenges Trump on his racist immigration platform will be seen as an appeaser by the far right, nativist caucus. He has ignited a fire that may consume them all. In an election cycle when the Republicans had hoped to increase their appeal to Latino voters, Trump has shown the full extent of the GOP’s dysfunction. They need more Latino votes to win, but their base demands deportation. Trump’s nostalgic rhetoric only reinforces the conviction that racism is the root of the matter: He wants to “make America great again,” the implication being that America was greater when WASPs were in charge.
It is an ugly business. The GOP leadership has brought this on themselves. By refusing to seek common ground with Democrats in Congress, the political middle is, today, without oxygen. I am fond of calling out both parties for their intransigence on certain issues but on the core political issue of refusing to work with the other party, the GOP owns that particular dysfunction. Now they are reaping what they have sowed. With no room in the center for sane discussion and debate, the political narrative is being defined by the extremists, and this one extremist, Donald Trump, has plenty of money and plenty of media savvy to keep his own political narrative going. At first, the Trump candidacy was kind of fun to watch. Now, the phenomenon looks darker and grimmer. Trump is not the problem. The problem is the 25 percent of Republicans who warm to his nativist bile.