In his first week as president, Donald Trump addressed employees at the Department of Homeland Security and instructed them that their mission would be to carry out the law. “I am asking all of you to enforce the laws of the United States of America … We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States,” he said.
Here Trump was hewing closely to the themes that had been developed for years by the most respectable conservative immigration hawks. Their complaint about illegal immigration was not the immigration part but the illegal part. Indeed, many conservatives expressed openness to higher levels of at least some forms of legal immigration. Trump himself repeatedly endorsed more legal immigration — just two months ago, he said, “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” It was all a matter of immigrating “the right way” rather than “the wrong way.”
The law-and-order façade has been crumbling for a long time. But the firing of Kirstjen Nielsen as secretary of DHS truly reveals how little Trump or his party actually care about the law at all.
In recent months, Trump has not bothered to conceal his impatience for legal niceties. He has publicly mocked the idea that courts should oversee asylum hearings (“Get rid of judges”), and claimed unilateral authority to spend federal money on border fencing despite being denied authorization by Congress. Reporting on Nielsen’s departure shows that her central disqualification was an unwillingness to violate the law.
CNN reports that Trump “becoming increasingly unhinged” in his demands to Nielsen, and kept making demands incompatible with “legal, humanitarian and international realities.” The president personally instructed border agents to defy the law and simply not let migrants in. A senior administration official explains, chillingly, “At the end of the day, the President refuses to understand that the Department of Homeland Security is constrained by the laws.”
The New York Times adds that Trump’s demands included “things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum,” but that any such explanation by the Homeland Security Secretary “only infuriated Mr. Trump further.” And NBC reports that Trump has demanded that Nielsen reinstate the family-separation policy, but she has resisted on the grounds that it would violate the executive order Trump signed last June.
While these accounts obviously come from Nielsen or her allies, and tend to present her tenure in a favorable light, the important thing here is not her sainthood. Clearly Nielsen had little or no humanitarian objection to Trump’s immigration agenda. But she did have a breaking point, and it was the very thing the administration claimed to be upholding all along: the rule of law.
One reason Trump has abandoned his pretext of simply following the law is that the immigration crisis is not related to breaking immigration laws. The surge at the border is migrants seeking asylum. They are not sneaking in, but presenting themselves at crossing points legally.
Trump’s response has been revealing. He has not abandoned his demand for a wall (which is of course irrelevant to refugees arriving at ports of entry). He has instead switched to insisting the “country is full,” without bothering to explain why, or even that, he has reversed his previous stance of welcoming larger numbers of legal immigrants.
The internal mental processes that created this reversal are, as usual, simple and fairly transparent. The wave of enthusiasm Trump unleashed was not a fervor for the efficient administration of immigration law. It was a racialized panic over cultural change.
A Washington Post account from last year depicts Trump regaling his advisers with stories of his rallies and the visceral response he drew when he linked immigrants with crime:
Acting as if he were at a rally, he recited a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, such as rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country — as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. Miller and Kushner laughed.
Conservative elites have tried to convince themselves that what Republican voters really mean when they cheer for the wall and repeat lurid stories of Latino men committing horrific crimes is that they just want the law to be followed. Trump, as he has done so many times, has turned the rationalizations made on his own behalf into a joke.
This post has been updated.