Discussion on immigration over the past year has been largely dominated by two topics: DACA and the wall. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump took the hard line on immigration and enforced his points with derogatory descriptions of immigrants. In an effort to satiate his base and reinforce their identification as “the American people” and “true citizenry,” Trump continues to engage in immigration debate and attempt policy reform. The approach echoes the efforts of populist leaders, especially so in contemporary Europe, to secure their base.
Is Trump a populist? Maybe? Maybe not? Commentators do not always seem to agree yet analyzing his position and actions on immigration issues reveal him pandering to what Jan-Werner Müller describes as one of the two pillars of populism: anti-pluralism. The United States is a country founded by, primarily white European, immigrants. This ethno-national majority group received privileges for generations as they held the title of “Americans” and were not defined as the “other.” With civil rights reforms, more divers immigration policies, and immigrant communities dispersing from their traditional enclaves created a “crisis of whiteness.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric reinforces the identities of supporters who feel that their nationality, culture, jobs, etc. is being threatened by immigrants, whether legal or illegal. Promising the deportation of 3 million illegals upon entering office, repealing DACA, showing little amnesty, and putting America first all cater to his message that America is meant for certain Americans. To his supporters who feel to be losing out in an increasingly plural and global society, the message garnered Trump support and squarely puts him within the realm of populism.
Though it is still to be seen if President Trump’s “four pillars” of immigration reform will be carried out, Trump took a first step with the repeal of DACA last September. However, he seemed to take a more lenient position of amnesty when dealing with DACA recipients, as he promised to replace the program and called on Congress to do so. In terms of immigration policy, most Americans across party lines support DACA, despite it being created through executive order by President Obama. However, while nearly 9 in 10 Americans believe in some sort of protection for DREAMers, support for the program becomes more divided as different groups are considered. Other polls showed that of those who strongly approve President Trump, 71% supported rescinding DACA. Yet, Republicans in general are typically more giving with DREAMers as 24% supported deporting recipients compared to 37% supporting the deportation of all illegal immigrants.
Trump’s apparent amnesty and show of “great heart” to DREAMers angered hard-line immigration members of his base; who in response took to burning their “Make America Great Again.” Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa) echoed this sentiment: “They came on board because: build a wall, enforce the border, enforce immigration law, no amnesty ever. And if they see amnesty coming out of the White House, then that’s the one thing that will crack his base.” However, Trump’s most conservative supporters do not need to worry that Trump may be softening on his approach to immigration.
The repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by the administration and the announced desire to protect the recipients to some capacity, act as a bargaining chip to achieve stricter immigration reform and dilute the appearance of more obvious anti-immigrant sentiment that liberals distance themselves from. DACA recipients, largely seen as the most sympathetic group of illegal citizens, are being used by the Trump administration to push forward stricter immigration policies, such as chain migration. All of this is an effort to put “America first,” or the America and American that is idealized by his supporters and legitimized by Trump. Other immigration reforms such as the border wall, restricting chain migration to spouses and children, and cutting back the Green Card program will affect a larger pool of immigrants.
Taking a softer approach to DACA is not Trump moving away from his anti-pluralist message. While stating “they shouldn’t be very worried. I do have a big heart. We’re going to take care of everybody,” he is continuing to share messages such as, “Make no mistake, we are going to put the interest of AMERICAN CITIZENS FIRST! The forgotten men & women will no longer being forgotten,” which he retweeted from anti-immigrant account. The hard and soft approach to DACA and immigration shows Trump’s bumbling attempt to appease his base and lull progressives into allowing stricter immigration policies to pass.
Ultimately, Trump is continuing to push an anti-immigrant and -pluralist message, which ideologically and policy-wise aligns him with other contemporary populist parties in Europe that draw on fears of terror, security, job and identity loss at the hands of migrants, immigrants, and refugees. Trump approach to DACA merely tries to make his hard-line immigration positions more palatable to moderate Republicans and progressives on the other side of the political aisle. So, no, Trump’s ‘display’ of amnesty with DACA recipients his not him softening on his populist anti-pluralist rhetoric as he continues to strongly engage in divisive anti-elitist and demographic politics; using DACA as a showpiece is his way to placate progressives and moderates while still appeasing his populist supporters.
Photo by Marco Verch, “Trump has decided to end DACA”, Creative Commons Zero license.