Lagging behind Hillary Clinton in the polls and fluctuating between the personas of a “kindler, gentler” candidate and the same old Trump, on Wednesday Donald Trump made a concerted effort to re-energize his base and stabilize his campaign by focusing on his signature issue: immigration. First he traveled to Mexico City to meet with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto, a move designed to make him appear statesmanlike and “presidential”, after which he flew to Arizona for a rally billed as a policy speech on immigration. He needed to make this speech to clarify his position because of his latest round of flip-flopping on the issue. Yet as might be expected, little was really changed or clarified.
What is clear is that inviting Trump to meet with him in Mexico was a major blunder on the part of President Nieto, who has received tremendous criticism from Mexicans and Mexican-Americans for doing so. To give a candidate the opportunity to meet with the president of a country that he has disparaged, mocked and threatened, to give him an aura of legitimacy, was a serious mistake for a head of state to make. However, Trump managed to make himself look bad by saying that although the wall was discussed at their meeting, the issue of who would pay for it was not, despite the fact that President Nieto later declared that he had insisted that it would not be Mexico. So either Trump was lying or he is accusing Nieto of lying. Not exactly a sign of successful diplomacy!
The speech was little more than a typical Trump rally rant, except for the fact that he had to read his teleprompter since his aides actually included some substantive items in the speech. But while he added some details regarding the components of his immigration policy, there was little that was new. He reiterated that he would build “a great wall, a beautiful wall” and he focused almost exclusively on throwing out all the “illegal aliens” who were criminals and bringing in only the “good people” with skills and education. He stated several times that there would be no amnesty, that there would be a deportation task force to identify and remove undocumented people with criminal records, that there would be “extreme vetting” to make sure that no criminals or terrorists were admitted, and that he would require “ideological certification” to make sure that immigrants who were allowed in thought and acted like Americans. The idea of testing whether a person possesses an ideology suitable for entrance into the United States brings to mind the 1950s and Joseph McCarthy.
The one issue that Trump still has been unclear about lately is how he would deal with the undocumented residents who have not been arrested and are not criminals – people who live here, often with families and children, who work and pay taxes and contribute to their communities, that he somehow still believes must be evicted from America. One of the highlights of Trump’s campaign from the very beginning, in addition to the wall that Mexico would have to pay for, was his pledge to round up and deport every undocumented immigrant in the U.S. While his base of supporters seems to love the image of Homeland Security police knocking on doors and dragging people out of their houses and out of the country, it has been reported that some more moderate Republicans would not tolerate this fascist-like approach to dealing with people, not to mention its unconstitutionality. So Trump downplayed that in his speech, saying only that he’ll figure out what to do with these millions of people only after all illegal immigration stops and the problem is fixed, but that they would be subject to deportation at any time, which is the case now. So that, it seems, is the “softer” Trump.
The content of the speech was more or less what was expected. But what was just as objectionable as the tactics he would employ were the distortions, falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies he spewed, such as blaming President Obama and Hillary Clinton for our immigration problems. They and NAFTA created this mess, according to Trump. But in making these false accusations, Trump ignored the fact that illegal immigration from Mexico, and indeed all immigration from there, both legal and illegal, has been declining since 2008. According to Gordon Hanson from the University of California, San Diego, an expert on NAFTA, the flow of migration reversed after 2008 as more Mexican-born immigrants left the U.S. than arrived due to stricter border enforcement, changing demographics in Mexico, fewer jobs in the U.S. and more jobs in Mexico. Additionally, more recent immigrants from Mexico are better educated and older, people that would be less likely to compete with non-college educated people for jobs in the U.S. and that would be less likely to engage in crime.
Trump accused the President and Hillary Clinton of maintaining an “open border” and simply letting people in, which has supposedly greatly exacerbated this problem. (It’s unclear why Hillary is being blamed but I suppose Trump doesn’t realize the Secretary of State has little if anything to do with this issue.) This is absurd and a complete lie since according to Department of Homeland Security statistics, the Obama administration has now “removed and returned” approximately 4.4 million undocumented immigrants from 2009 through 2014 (prior to 1996 the term “deported” was used for these combined two categories). This is hardly the record of a president who is doing nothing about, or causing, the immigration problem in this country!
And Trump put an even uglier cast on the issue by focusing so much of his speech on the undocumented residents who have been arrested for a crime, as if there is a rampant crime wave being committed by gangs of illegal immigrants that Obama is doing nothing about. Of course, all crimes are serious and should not be taken lightly. But he didn’t mention that under Obama those convicted of a crime constituted 91% of immigrants removed from the U.S in 2015; in 2014 it was 85%. Instead, Trump devoted so much of his speech to the relatively few illegal immigrants who were criminals and on the heinous crimes committed by them, making it seem that most undocumented residents are criminals and directly accusing Obama (and Clinton) for these crimes because of the “open borders” that supposedly allowed these criminals to enter our country. In fact, the policy of this administration is to prioritize removing those immigrants convicted of a crime. Apparently this is of no consequence to Trump and his supporters, who would rather stir up hate than honestly work to solve the problem.
Yet Trump boasted that he would get immigrants who are criminals out of the country and break up their gangs on his first day in office, despite President Obama’s commitment to and partial success in doing just that. Trump acted like he didn’t know that by far the greatest amount of crime in this country is committed by native-born Americans. If it were so easy to end crime and catch all criminals, it would have been accomplished already, yet Trump assured us that he would fix it without telling us how. The sad part is that he, and his deluded supporters, seem to believe that he could.
Considering all of this, one has to wonder why Trump is making immigration such a keystone of his campaign, unless, of course, it is because he simply wants to appeal to racist, nationalist white people by playing on their misfortunes and fears. Racists like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke highly approved of the speech and Trump’s policy on immigration. This is the sign of a true demagogue: Tell lies and distort the truth to whip up the haters and get the votes. A few weeks ago, when there was a question about the legality of the way his wife, Melania, became a citizen after she came to America on a work visa, a reporter asked several of his supporters why that wasn’t a problem with Melania yet it was a problem with Mexicans. The answer was that she’s a white European, not a Mexican. That led to the code Trump used in his speech, saying that we’d accept the “good ones” that will help America, not the unskilled, uneducated criminals. He didn’t have to repeat his infamous remarks of last year that Mexican immigrants were rapists and murderers; the damage was already done and the connection easily made.
Frankly, it was difficult listening to Trump for over an hour. After showing his polite, respectful side when he played the diplomat in Mexico, he screamed and bellowed out his lies at his audience. If there is one thing Trump is good at, it’s using the media to come across as an expert on things he knows nothing about. He is showing, as he has shown many times in the past, that he is willing to stoop to any level to get people to support him. But there were lies in many things he said – some have been identified here, but the fact-checkers have a lot of work to do.
This is not a trivial matter. Clinton and President Obama should respond, exposing Trump’s falsehoods and distortions of the truth. At the end of his speech, Trump demanded an answer from Clinton. And she should respond. Hillary should not sit this one out; she must set the facts straight and appeal to the fair-mindedness of the majority of Americans who realize that as a democracy and as a nation of immigrants, we must get this right. Otherwise, we are at risk of going down a path of intolerance, bigotry and divisiveness that will change the very idea of America.