Does Donald Trump believe his bizarre bluster on immigration?

Michael Paarlberg


There is no issue that better illustrates the parallel universe in which Donald Trump resides than immigration policy. In the real world, unauthorized immigration is the lowest it’s been in a decade, and violent crime has been dropping since the 1990s. Yet in Trump’s bizarre world, we are experiencing an out-of-control immigrant crime wave.

Apparently MS-13 members with face tattoos are flooding across an unguarded southern border by the millions and are wreaking havoc in lawless “sanctuary cities”, where they are given voting rights, free healthcare, and the names and addresses of Trump supporters. Immigrants – at least those from whom he does not personally profit – are, in Trump’s words, “gang members, drug dealers, human traffickers, and criminals of all shapes, sizes, and kinds”. “These aren’t people. These are animals.” What better way, then, to punish his enemies than to send them people of whom Trump is so personally terrified?

Related: Trump's moves on immigration are straight from the dictator's playbook | Robert Reich

Such is the logic of Trump’s announcement that he intends to bus undocumented immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities. These are localities which, in varying ways, limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities in order to encourage immigrant cooperation with local police.

Trump’s proposal resembles a perverse re-enactment of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro emptied out Cuba’s prisons and encouraged convicts to flee to a United States that was welcoming the island’s dissidents with open arms. That Trump’s enemies don’t see today’s asylum seekers – mostly Central Americans fleeing gang violence, a growing proportion of whom are women and children – as the reincarnation of Scarface is lost on Trump.

Warnings from Congress that such a policy would be illegal have not deterred him, nor has resistance to the idea from his own Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The only enthusiasm his proposal has attracted has been from the Democratic mayors he imagines he is trolling: the mayor of Oakland, whom Trump tweeted does “NOT WANT our currently ‘detained immigrants’”, responded that “Oakland welcomes all, no matter where you came from or how you got here.” If Trump were to follow through with his threat, it would probably be better for immigrants, who would benefit from the social support networks that exist in sanctuary cities.

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The reason Trump’s threat (which Trump’s deputy press secretary has clumsily tried to recast as an “olive branch”) has failed to elicit mass panic and capitulation by Democrats is that they live in those cities, and see sanctuary policies working pretty well. Political science research reflects this. Tom Wong of the University of California San Diego found that sanctuary cities are more likely to see undocumented immigrants report crime to local police, and that sanctuary cities tend to see less reliance on public assistance, and better labor force participation rates, than non-sanctuary cities. And Loren Collingwood of the University of California Riverside and Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien of San Diego State University found that sanctuary cities are statistically no more likely to experience crime than non-sanctuary cities. The then attorney general, Jeff Sessions, subsequently misrepresented their research, claiming it found the opposite of what it actually did.

There is simply no empirical basis to the premise that immigration and crime are somehow linked

Going beyond the sanctuary cities debate, research has long shown that immigrants as a whole commit less crime than native-born Americans, and areas that have more immigrants today have fewer violent crimes. There is simply no empirical basis to the premise that immigration and crime are somehow linked. Simply mentioning immigration and crime in the same sentence poisons the political conversation, by creating the perception of a relationship that isn’t there. Even rebuttals such as this one help keep these two unrelated things together in the public’s mind.

Yet there is a danger in portraying Trump as more calculating than he is. The Democrats’ reaction to his sanctuary cities announcement flatters him too much, lambasting him for using immigrants as “pawns” in some diabolical scheme. Trump is no evil genius, and this lazy attempt at trolling is evidence enough. That Trump is willing to fan xenophobic hysteria – including against sitting members of Congress – as his re-election strategy is not surprising. That he actually buys into his own rhetoric is telling. Trump’s belief in an imaginary immigrant crime wave meriting dictatorial emergency powers is so unquestioning that he is genuinely surprised whenever his illegal executive actions get slapped down by courts, or voters react negatively to his policy of stealing children from their parents.

It’s a common mistake, made mostly by elite types with an allergy to populist rhetoric, that demagogues don’t really believe what they say. They must be hucksters who, behind closed doors, mock their supporters as rubes. Throughout his campaign, Trump benefited from this presumption that he doesn’t really mean it: he’s saying these things to get attention, or to get a better deal with NBC. After years of Trump playing the willful idiot, it’s worth considering that it may not be an act at all.