Despite vowing to revisit the idea of closing the US-Mexico border in a year’s time, Donald Trump’s retreat from his threat this week served as the latest example of his inability to address the signature issue of his presidency.
Throughout his first two years in office, Trump has cast a sustained spotlight on the border while sounding the alarm over immigration, in the hopes of enacting the restrictive agenda that helped propel him to the White House in 2016.
He has rescinded protections for Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children; he has scaled back protections for asylum seekers and other immigrants from vulnerable countries; and perhaps, most infamously, his administration separated parents and children at the US-Mexico border in a humanitarian crisis with lasting impact.
But Trump’s numerous actions have yet to produce any results, experts say, reinforcing that his approach is more politically motivated than driven by any coherent policy. His motivations, they argue, are more rooted in fanning the flames of nationalism than seeking the kind of deal on immigration that for decades has eluded his predecessors.
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“He hasn’t really been able to get a handle on the issue,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think that among his staunch supporters, immigration is the one policy area where he’s most vulnerable.
“And that’s because arguably his strongest suit as a candidate was to pledge to crack down on immigration and the successful effort to play the white nationalist card.”
This year alone, Trump led the US into the longest government shutdown in history after Congress rebuffed funding a border wall. He subsequently declared a national emergency, ignoring warnings from his own party and drawing a formal rebuke from lawmakers in Washington.
Trump’s tough talk on closing the border appeared to be his latest gambit – emboldened by close allies at Fox News – as he sets his sights toward his 2020 re-election campaign.
Trump rooted his rationale in what he claimed was Mexico’s failure to stop the illegal flow of drugs and immigration across the US border. Although he had long talked about shutting the border – without actually following through – he insisted over the past week that such an action was imminent.
The pushback was comprehensive.
Experts warned of significant damage to the US economy, pointing to a close trade partnership that in 2018 amounted to roughly $502bn in goods exchanged across the border. Some estimates have suggested nearly 5m American jobs rely on the US-Mexico trading relationship.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, publicly urged the president not to act upon his threat.
Trump was dismissive of the economic concerns, telling reporters earlier this week: “To me, trading is very important, the borders are very important, but security is what is most important. I mean we have to have security.”
Just 48 hours later, Trump had changed his tune.
Mexico was receiving a “one-year warning”, he said, to stem the flow of illegal drugs. In he meantime, Trump declared plans to impose auto tariffs – even as he is soon seeking approval from Congress to ratify the revamped North American Free Trade Act (Nafta) negotiated under his administration.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have to close the border,” Trump said, contradicting his own claims.
Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, said Trump was not wrong in his desire to reform America’s immigration system. But he took issue with Trump’s repeated use of executive action, as opposed to negotiating a legislative solution through Congress.
“I would encourage the president to channel his frustration into an opportunity to arrive at a consensus, a bill that both sides feel they could win on, as opposed to unilateral or executive action,” Garza said.
But legislative progress has largely been stymied by Trump himself.
In early 2018, Trump engaged in his characteristic showmanship in the pursuit of a bipartisan immigration deal that would address the plight of Dreamers after he rescinded the protections granted to them under Barack Obama.
He televised his meetings with members of Congress and engaged with a bipartisan working group that appeared to reach a breakthrough.
A narrow compromise would have provided tighter border security measures in exchange for temporary status for Dreamers. Trump gave the proposal his blessing in an unexpected shift from his previous objections to granting what hard-right conservatives deride as “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants.
Days later, following immense backlash from anti-immigrant voices such as Ann Coulter, Trump reversed course. The White House later embraced a proposal that would have granted protections for Dreamers in exchange for building a wall and dramatically reducing even legal immigration – a non-starter with Democrats.
It was amid the same negotiations that Trump reportedly referred, behind closed doors, to certain African and Latin American nations as “shithole countries”.
“Putting together the president’s claims of cultural threat from immigration with his vilification of nonwhite immigrants, these statements suggest support for white nationalist ideas,” Jayashri Srikantiah and Shirin Sinnar, both law professors at Stanford Law School, wrote in an essay identifying white nationalism as the driver of Trump’s immigration policy.
On the campaign trail, Trump has continued to employ stark rhetoric linking immigrants to violence and crime.
“We are on track for 1 million illegal aliens trying to rush our borders,” Trump claimed at a rally in Michigan last week.
“It is an invasion, you know that. I say invasion.”
The message was reminiscent of Trump’s closing argument leading up to last November’s 2018 midterm elections.
But now Trump will also be forced to contend with a failure to fulfill his promises on immigration.
Lou Dobbs, a Fox News Business host who ranks among Trump’s most vocal on-air champions, expressed frustration this week at what he said was Trump’s lack of results on border security.
“That is a horrible worsening vulnerability for this president, a glaring electoral burden facing 2020,” Dobbs said.