Many immigrants loathe and fear President Trump, whether they’re in the United States legally or illegally. Trump would send many undocumented immigrants back where they came from, if he could. He’s cutting back on legal immigration as well, and he’s dismantling programs that have protected in-betweeners such as refugees who came to America on a temporary basis to avoid danger or other risks at home.
Trump recently signaled his willingness to allow roughly 800,000 “dreamers”—young people brought illegally to the United States as children–to stay in the country, which would extend a policy President Obama established in 2012. But there’s a catch: Congress must provide billions of dollars for the wall Trump wants to build along the Mexican border, which will require support from Democrats. If Trump doesn’t get his wall, he may expel the dreamers, following through on his decision last September to end the Obama-era policy. In essence, Trump is holding the dreamers hostage to his demands for wall money.
To the Trump base, that’s fine. Trump’s anti-immigration policies are part of his “America First” agenda, and they play well with fed-up voters who feel Washington has ignored working-class Americans for years. Some of those voters blame immigrants for taking jobs native-born Americans used to do, for less pay, and eroding middle-class living standards.
While immigrants do push down wages in some instances, they also do many jobs Americans aren’t willing to do, such as picking produce and gutting chickens. In general, economists say, immigrants boost economic growth because they represent more people working, buying stuff and creating economic value. Immigrants are also more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans, which brings needed innovation to the economy. We actually need more immigrants, economists insist, to boost growth in the labor force as baby boomers retire and America’s population flattens out.
If immigrants help the economy, then why are they in trouble? Because Trump has exploited the anger of frustrated Americans who blame immigrants for their problems. But Democrats are culpable, too, because they did nothing to alleviate the root problem when they could have. During his 8 years in the White House, President Obama did little to address legitimate frustrations of the white working class, leaving bad feelings smoldering until Trump came along and stoked the fire.
Obama talked over the white working class
Obama talked the talk, calling for new laws and programs that would have hiked the federal minimum wage, provided more job training for displaced workers, required paid sick leave for more workers and helped more people afford a college education. He got little cooperation from Congress during his last six years in office, when Republicans controlled first the House, and then the House and Senate both. Had Democrats controlled Congress during that time, Obama’s “middle-class economics” program might have passed.
But there was some merit to Republican complaints that Obama was aloof and seemingly uninterested in compromise with the opposing party. Obama also spent a lot of political capital on the Affordable Care Act he signed into law in 2010, a giant new federal program that was unpopular from the outset and came with considerable downsides. While the ACA did extend health coverage to several million additional Americans, it also raised health care costs for some middle-class families who earned too much to afford subsidies under the new law. The ACA essentially harmed some Americans to help others, which left a bad taste in voters’ mouths. This being America, voters also disliked the new mandate that everybody had to have health insurance or pay a penalty to the government.
Voters appreciate empathy, too, and Obama didn’t have much to offer the white factory worker who couldn’t find a decent-paying job. Obama championed wind and solar startups, while extolling job creation in newfangled industries. But he was mostly silent about coal miners and oil roughnecks losing their dirty jobs. And while Obama spoke eloquently about foreign affairs and, occasionally, race relations, he made no connection at all with the sort of discouraged backsliders depicted in the surprise bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy,” published in Obama’s final year in office. Obama talked over the heads of the white working class.
Trump, somehow, knew how to rally those disaffected Americans—and part of his pitch was to vilify immigrants. That’s a classic populist tactic: create a villain people can pin their problems on. This doesn’t mean every white working-class voter is biased against immigrants. Far from it. But many are grateful to Trump for hearing their plaints and simply acknowledging they exist. And they’re willing to consider whatever Trump suggests might make things better.
Marginalizing immigrants won’t solve any problems, and it would probably make some problems worse. Blue-collar workers are falling behind because they lack the skills to compete and prosper in an economy dominated by digital technology. The solutions are better education, aggressive job training and more economic mobility, allowing workers to go where the jobs are. Penalizing immigrants for their willingness to compete on pay at the bottom of the income ladder won’t help lift up anybody else. Not by much, anyway.
But that is not Trump’s narrative, and now he’s stuck having to make good on a campaign promise he would have been better off not making. That means Trump has to “get tough” on immigration—whatever that means—in order to keep faith with voters who took that promise seriously. But he has to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the economy or make his party seem any more heartless than voters already think it is. Harder still may be helping those workers who think their biggest problem is immigration.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman