Why Trump is manufacturing an immigration crisis

May 3, 2018


(Advance for Friday, May 4, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, May 3, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)


NEW YORK — Donald Trump has claimed that the group of migrants that recently made its way from Central America to the United States symbolizes out-of-control immigration, lawlessness and violence besetting the country. “Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming,” he tweeted last month. This week, he added: “The migrant ‘caravan’ that is openly defying our border shows how weak & ineffective U.S. immigration laws are.”

The facts suggest the opposite. In 2017, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection report, illegal cross-border migration was at its lowest level (BEG ITAL)on record(END ITAL).

Trump, of course, claims that this drop is the result of his policies. The president used tough language in his State of the Union, boasting that his administration had put “more boots on the Southern border than at any time in our history” and had cut “illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.” You’ll recall that this was the State of the Union delivered in February 2013 and the president making the speech was Barack Obama.

The decline in illegal immigration has been a two-decade-long trend. Over that time, the number of Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border has dropped by around 80 percent, from 1.6 million in 2000 to 300,000 in 2017.

As for Mexican migration, even before Trump’s rise, more Mexicans were leaving the United States than entering. According to a Pew Research Center study, from 2009 to 2014, 1 million Mexicans and their families (including children born in America) went back to their home country, while 870,000 arrived here.

As for that caravan, the more than 1,100 migrants from Central America fleeing poverty, gang violence and repression banded together for safety. They are a peaceful group of mostly women and children. Many will probably end up living in Mexico. A small number, about 200, are expected to apply for asylum in the United States, and past admission rates suggest that only a quarter will be accepted. That is the reality of the supposedly menacing caravan that Trump conjures up.

And yet, Trump is unrelenting in his attacks on these destitute, defenseless people. He demonizes them, describing them as threats to America, symbols of the lawlessness and violence that supposedly pervade the country. (In fact, violent crime in America is down by 66 percent since the early 1990s.)

Why is he doing this? The most likely answer is that he is searching for a strategy for the upcoming midterm elections, which are looking grim for Republicans, who have little to talk about. There is no trillion-dollar infrastructure program. The new tax law is unpopular, seen as largely a giveaway to corporations and the rich. It has not boosted economic growth as promised. Health care is now even more complex, given the partial repeal of Obamacare.

And then there is Trump’s own approval ratings, lower than any president’s in modern history at this point in his term except Jimmy Carter’s. Oh, and add to that the cloud of the Robert Mueller investigation. What is the way out for the Republicans?

Focus on the cultural anxieties of the American public. Nothing embodies these anxieties as much as immigration. It has become a simple catch-all for the swirling mass of fears, particularly among non-college educated whites, Trump’s core base. Trump has often noted how crucial the border wall is to his base, declaring that “the thing they want more than anything is the wall.” Indeed, a recent poll indicated that 81 percent of Republicans want the wall to be built.

In a midterm, in which it is crucial to bring out your most ardent supporters, nothing will work as well as immigration. (Though do not be surprised if Trump also picks a few fights with black athletes or victims of police violence in the coming months.)

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences finds that Trump voters in the 2016 election were motivated less by economic anxiety and more by status anxiety — fears of waning power and status in a changing country. And an earlier PRRI analysis had come to a similar conclusion, highlighting “fears about cultural displacement” as the key to understanding the motivation of white, working-class Trump voters.

Donald Trump may not read academic studies, but he clearly understands in his gut what stirs his base. And he is determined to inflame these fears regardless of the facts or the effect this will have on the country.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.