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There has often been a chasm between the lofty rhetoric of U.S. presidents and their actual policies. When it comes to immigration, Donald Trump does not have that problem. His rhetoric and policies are remarkably aligned. He is saying and doing things that no one—not even the most hardline restrictionists—thought imaginable a few years ago.
In 2015, Trump kicked off his election campaign with an infamous speech claiming that Mexico was sending "rapists and criminals" to America—never mind that immigrants, both authorized and unauthorized, commit crimes at far lower rates than the native-born, according to numerous studies by academics, think tanks, and the government itself. Any hope that he would dial back such dehumanizing comments once he got to the White House was quickly dashed. The president has denigrated people from "shithole countries" and resurrected long discarded blood-and-soil tropes, claiming, for example, that Central Americans fleeing organized crime and desperate poverty want to "infest" the United States. This is eerily similar to the language that nativists deployed against the Chinese, referring to them as "vermin" and "rats," when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Trump elides distinctions between ordinary unauthorized immigrants—including women and children who have committed no offense other than to come here without permission—and alien gangs such as MS-13, and then he calls the latter group "animals, not people."
This May, Trump invited Hungary's xenophobic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to the White House—ending a 20-year banishment—and heaped fulsome praise on his "Hungary first" agenda. Orbán, who has erected a razor-wire fence to keep out Syrians merely passing through his country to seek asylum in Western Europe, wants America to join a new alliance of anti-immigration nations to counter bleeding-heart "globalists" who "are watching with their hands in the air" as Europe is "under invasion."
Trump himself has indulged in Orbán-style talk of invasions. At a recent Panama City, Florida, rally, the president regaled the gathered throngs with tales about the southern border. "Two or three" border agents contend with the arrival of "hundreds and hundreds of people," he lamented. "How do you stop these people?" When a fan shouted "shoot them," Trump joked that "only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement." To be sure, he added, he "wouldn't do that." But the fact that such violence is being joked about without rebuke at his events shows the shocking depths to which the national conversation about immigration has fallen.
It would be possible to dismiss such talk as empty rhetoric if the Trump administration weren't also using every tool it can lay its hands on to advance its sweeping anti-immigration objectives. These include deterring asylum seekers, cracking down on unauthorized immigrants, making admission difficult for all but the tippy-top tier of foreigners, and generally slowing legal immigration to a crawl. Congress and the courts have thwarted some of Trump's more flamboyant plans to build a wall on the southern border that could cost upward of $60 billion and strip so-called sanctuary cities of federal funding, the pro-immigration Migration Policy Institute's Sarah Pierce and Andrew Selee note, but the president has nevertheless managed to engineer "deep shifts" in U.S. immigration policy that will have a lasting impact.
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