In the short term, the Trump administration has really placed itself on the horns of a dilemma by initiating its “zero tolerance” policy for people crossing the U.S. border without documentation. It is unlikely that it can brazenly continue to defy the outpouring of anguish over the separation of families at the border for too much longer, as religious communities, Republicans, and just plain folks who aren’t especially political are galvanized by the images of crying children held in cages. It seems even more unlikely that the GOP gambit of using the humanitarian crisis to force passage of Trump-backed immigration legislation is going to work. If anything, Democrats have found in the family separation saga a powerful midterm campaign issue, and aren’t about to reward Trump with a border wall or reductions in legal immigration to end it.
But just standing down has serious political downsides, too, since “zero tolerance” is at the heart of the approach to immigration that Trump’s “base” have long demanded — and that Trump ran on. At a time when the president and his associates have clearly decided his party’s only route to survival in the midterms is to whip up that base into a frenzy, backing down on a border crackdown would be a stone bummer for the MAGA set.
The lesson Team Trump should learn from this moment, however, goes far beyond the policies executed at the border. A true “zero tolerance” immigration regime will focus not just on new undocumented immigrants, but on the 11 million or so living in various parts of the country. And once the status of relatively popular undocumented immigrants such as Dreamers is sorted out, support for dealing preemptively with many of the others will again rise among conservative voters.
The Trump administration has neither the resources nor (probably) the political gumption to initiate mass deportations, complete with midnight roundups, transit camps, and buses or boxcars stuffed with “illegal aliens” headed to the border. But even stepped-up deportations could quickly create some of the same disturbing images of peaceful people being herded into pens and denied basic rights that have troubled consciences during the “zero tolerance” campaign aimed at migrants. Yes, Trump and company might well try to justify increased deportations as a matter of protecting American citizens from “criminals,” even though the only crime most of the undocumented have committed is a violation of immigration laws. But in the end the kind of immigration regime Breitbart News might approve of will trap Republicans between a nativist base and a general population that overwhelmingly prefers “amnesty” under certain conditions to deportations.
In the end, even Donald Trump and Stephen Miller will probably be driven to the sneaky but effective strategy that in 2012 Mitt Romney indelibly labeled “self-deportation”: making life sufficiently miserable for the undocumented that many if not most will leave the country voluntarily, saving the U.S. government the financial, administrative, and psychological costs of finding, detaining, and deporting them.
But there is a catch even there: the centerpiece of any feasible “self-deportation” strategy is a system of serious sanctions against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. Part of the train-wreck over pending immigration legislation in the House this spring has been a dispute between hard-core conservatives and business interests over proposed provisions making the federal government’s voluntary electronic e-Verify system for checking the immigration status of employees mandatory for many employers. With corporate America already in a state of near-revolt over Trump’s trade policies, it’s unclear how far his GOP allies will go in an effort that essentially blames employers rather than Democratic lawmakers for the number of “illegal aliens” in the country.
In any event, the border issues hanging so much fire right now should be understood as the opening skirmish of a broader battle over immigration enforcement actions that raise the expectations of nativists while dismaying or even angering the majority of the country, including key elites from clergy to corporate executives. We may soon discover exactly how far Donald Trump is willing to go to vindicate the investment he’s made in get-tough immigration policies as a signature initiative.