Donald Trump has always been more successful as a hype man than anything else, and his speech last night did nothing to change this. While beforehand speculation raged about whether it would contain a declaration of national emergency, or simply be another unhinged performance, the nine-minute address turned out to contain nothing new. Manifesting the kind of restrained resentment he always displays when he isn’t allowed to adopt his preferred mode of speaking and simply broadcast his inner monologue, Trump wearily went through the talking points about immigration he has repeated since announcing his candidacy: “illegal aliens” are bringing drugs into the country and committing crimes, and they need to be stopped.
Of course, liberal fact-checkers had their replies ready before the words had even crawled off Trump’s teleprompter. The vast majority of drugs in the US are smuggled through legal ports of entry. Undocumented immigrants commit crimes at significantly lower rates than the general population. The list goes on.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their official response to Trump’s address, declined the fact-checking approach and instead focused on hitting Trump over the government shutdown. They pointed out that the partial closure was causing all kinds of economic chaos that would only get worse the longer it went on, and that they could negotiate over border security with the president while the government was functioning.
Schumer and Pelosi were also strident in their rejection of the wall. Schumer offered what was probably the best line of the night — “the symbol of the United States should be the Statue of Liberty, not a thirty-foot wall.” To the tens of millions of people horrified by the president’s racist scapegoating, these words no doubt gave hope that the Democrats would be a principled opposition.
But Trump, in his address, had already pointed out an ugly flaw in the Democrats’ efforts to present themselves as the defenders of immigrants. The Democrats, he noted, had supported border barriers in the past, only becoming their dogged opponents when Trump was elected.
There’s no small element of truth to this. The first border barriers were built by Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. In 2006, many leading Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the Secure Fence Act, which George W. Bush signed into law. As late as 2009, Schumer was bragging about the 630 miles of border fencing Congress had authorized.
With this in mind, the Democrats’ response to Trump begins to look a lot less principled. It was striking, for example, that neither Pelosi nor Schumer even mentioned the children who have died recently in immigration detention camps after crossing the border. Even as these horror stories have attracted significant attention over the last few weeks, the Democratic leaders instead focused on the problems with the shutdown and verbal opposition to the wall.
This has been the broader pattern of the Democratic position on immigration over the last decade. In the pursuit of what they call comprehensive immigration reform, the Democrats have persistently accepted the Republican framing of an immigration crisis, and nodded to the need for more enforcement and more deportation, while opposing only the most lunatic excesses of Republican xenophobia, whether it was the Sensenbrenner bill in 2006, Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, or Trump’s “beautiful, thirty-foot wall” today.
The result of this accomodationism has been a massive militarization of the Southern border that has caused untold human suffering. It is estimated that over ten thousand people have died crossing the border since Bill Clinton first started constructing a border barrier, the effect of which has been to drive migrants into deeper and more remote parts of the desert as they attempt to cross. Today, border enforcement resembles nothing so much as organized sadism, as Border Patrol agents literally comb through the desert dumping out containers of water they find lest they give succor to thirsty immigrants.
That the Democrats are willing to countenance such brutality, while opposing Trump’s wall as a step too far, is only one of the sad ironies that afflict immigration politics in the United States. The bigger one is that the increasing acceptance of militarized border enforcement in official politics has developed at the same time that public opinion has become less and less xenophobic. In this light, the Trump administration’s contempt for democracy is, in the context of American politics, far less exceptional than liberal pundits would like to think.
Still, however compromised the Democrats are, it’s likely that they will win this fight. Government shutdowns aren’t popular, and Trump simply doesn’t have the support to force the Democrats to the table on the wall. In all likelihood, he will have to cave. But Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, the children who died in Border Patrol custody last month, died without Trump’s border wall. This brutality will continue until pro-immigrant public opinion is translated into a political movement capable of confronting both Trump’s Neanderthal xenophobia and the Democrats’ more urbane vision of unmanned drones and seismic sensors. Against both, the Left should pose a simple demand: let them all in.