Steve Roberts: Trump risks best re-election argument with immigration agenda

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 1, 2020

By Steve Roberts

John Bolton, the former national security adviser, writes in his new book that President Trump makes decisions based on only one calculation: his own political self-interest.

Talking to George Stephanopoulos on ABC, Bolton warned about the serious dangers of a second Trump term: “The biggest fear I have is that his policymaking is so incoherent, so unfocused, so unstructured, so wrapped around his own personal political fortunes, that mistakes are being made that will have grave consequences for the national security of the United States.”

Trump’s already making many mistakes with “grave consequences” for the national interest. One of the most debilitating is his severe crackdown on foreigners seeking to immigrate here, whether to find economic opportunity or to flee persecution. This is being done for only one purpose: to stir up Trump’s base for the fall election by exploiting nativist fears and demonizing “the others.” There’s nothing new about this strategy. Trump announced his run for president by denouncing supposed hordes of Mexican “rapists” pouring across the border, and during the 2018 midterm elections, he tried — and failed — to scare voters with a nightmare “caravan” of criminals invading from the south.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has given the president and his hardline advisers an opening to seal up our borders and slam shut the “golden door” of American promise. That might appeal to his most xenophobic supporters, but it could also be self-defeating: Halting immigration threatens to throttle the economic recovery Trump is counting on to sway voters in November.

The administration’s latest moves would cut off work visas to hundreds of thousands of foreigners — mainly in the technology world, but potentially also affecting sectors from landscaping and hospitality to medicine and higher education. Team Trump claims they’re protecting jobs for out-of-work Americans, and yes, a lot of families are hurting badly. But that argument profoundly misreads the nature of immigration and the contributions newcomers make to the economy.

On balance, immigrants are job makers, not job takers. Their energy and entrepreneurship fuel America’s economic engines. And their taxes subsidize the social services enjoyed by aging white Trump voters. That’s why the business community reacted so furiously to Trump’s new rules.

Here’s Thomas J. Donohue, chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses and other workers won’t help our country; it will hold us back. Restrictive changes in our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth and reduce job creation.”

Or Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, head of public policy and philanthropy for Twitter: “This proclamation undermines America’s greatest economic asset: its diversity. Unilaterally and unnecessarily stifling America’s attractiveness to global, high-skilled talent is short-sighted and deeply damaging to the economic strength of the United States.”

Even some of Trump’s closest political allies realize the “deeply damaging” impact of his policy. Last month, nine Republican senators warned the president that “Guest workers are needed to boost American business, not take American jobs.” One of them, Lindsey Graham, tweeted after the rules were finalized that they would “create a drag on our economic recovery.” But Trump is clearly not listening, because he has another agenda: weaponizing the COVID-19 crisis and virtually abolish the entire immigration system.

For instance, new rules make it almost impossible for refugees or asylum seekers to gain entry into this country, even though American law and tradition commit the nation to providing a safe haven for the world’s most desperate and destitute exiles. As Nickole Miller, an immigration expert at the University of Baltimore law school, wrote in The Washington Post: “The cumulative effect of these rules will be to effectively rewrite the refugee definition out of existence and end asylum in the United States.”

Moreover, the administration has halted the issuance of green cards, key documents immigrants need on their path to citizenship. It has blocked more than 2,000 children at the southern border, many of them under 13, from even applying for refugee status. And although the Supreme Court thwarted Trump’s attempt to cancel the DACA program, which bars the deportation of about 700,000 “Dreamers” who were brought here as children, the president has signaled he will look for another way to abolish those safeguards.

Bolton is right: By focusing solely on his own political fortunes, Trump risks making decisions that could have “grave consequences” for the country. But here’s the irony: By restricting immigration, Trump could be undermining the best argument he has for his own reelection — a robust economic recovery.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at