Donald Trump's immigration "pivot" has been more like a whirling dervish act these past few weeks. He's gone from meeting with Hispanic leaders, promising to soften his position, to sending out his surrogates to make mutually contradictory promises that he definitely would or would not find a way to allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. Then on Wednesday, he jetted off to Mexico for a photo-op with President Enrique Pena Nieto. He held a short and mild-mannered news conference afterward but ended the day delivering a rant in Phoenix that reiterated his commitment to deport everyone here illegally and also his goal of restricting legal immigration in radical ways. So what are voters left with, besides a bad case of vertigo?
Most commentators after Trump's speech focused on his tough line on getting rid of immigrants already here illegally. Indeed, he broke new ground in his Phoenix speech, promising to revoke not only President Barack Obama's executive action giving temporary reprieve from deportation to the undocumented parents of American-born children but also Obama's earlier, mostly noncontroversial executive action that temporarily shielded undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children. The courts struck down President Obama's executive action for parents of American-born children but did not touch the exemption for young adults who came illegally as children. Trump now seems ready to deploy his new "deportation force" to rid the country of law-abiding young people who've lived here for as long as they can remember and know no other home.
This callousness has already prompted some of Trump's National Hispanic Advisory Council to quit, most notably Alfonso Aguilar, former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration, businessman Jacob Monty and Pastor Ramiro Pena, who offered a stinging rebuke after the speech. "The 'National Hispanic Advisory Council' seems to be simply for optics and I do not have the time or energy for a scam," Politico reports Pena as writing to campaign and Republican National Committee officials.
Less noticed in Trump's speech were his words on legal immigration — but in many ways, they are the most radical thing he said. Trump has, from the beginning of his campaign, surrounded himself with immigration hard-liners, not just people concerned about illegal immigration. It's no coincidence that accompanying Trump on his visit south of the border was Sen. Jeff Sessions, arguably the most anti-immigrant politician since Sen. William Paul Dillingham, whose opposition to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe resulted in the first mass restriction legislation in the early 1900s. And whenever Trump cites studies on the supposed ill effect of immigration, they are usually from the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, which not only opposes illegal immigration but, more importantly, wants to put strict limits on legal immigration, as well.
Conservatives have tried to argue for years that they are not anti-immigrant, just anti-illegal immigration. And most, I believe, are sincere. But goaded by Sessions and restrictionist organizations such as CIS, Trump made clear in Phoenix that he wants to return to the days of Dillingham.
"We take anybody," Trump said, referring to current law. "Come on in, anybody. Just come on in. Not anymore," he vowed. What he was promising was to roll back the 1965 immigration law that abolished quotas on national origins put in place a half-century earlier to favor immigrants from northern Europe. In its place, Trump says he wants "to keep immigration levels measured by population share within historical norms," and he's not talking about recent years or even the levels of the early 20th century. He wants fewer immigrants, period, and he wants to make sure immigration does not upset the historical racial balance of the U.S.
Trump also said he will "select immigrants based on their likelihood of success in U.S. society." The language may sound benign, but the sentiment is not all that different from what prompted Dillingham and others in the early 20th century to want to keep out Italians, Slavs and others deemed inferior to people of northern European descent.
It's easy to forget that anti-immigrant fervor isn't new. Trump and his most fervent followers may want to bar Mexicans and other Latinos now, but the grandparents of many of the people gathered in Phoenix this week to hear Trump speak faced the same opposition when they came from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland — and, yes, Germany, where Trump's grandfather was born.
Donald Trump's runaround on immigration the past week leaves him right about where he started — demonizing people based on not just how they got here but where they come from.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore