As Donald Trump marches (goose steps?) toward the Republican nomination, there’s been much hand wringing about the reasons for his rise. But if you listen to his supporters, there are a few themes that stand out.
One big issue is immigration. Last June, Mr. Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and he has advocated banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Indeed, for a time, the only issue on the Trump campaign website was immigration (or maybe more accurately, anti-immigration).
There are many explanations for why Mr. Trump’s xenophobia has resonated with his supporters: Fear of terrorists and criminals, economic and cultural concerns, racism and white supremacism. In a way, these are not new. For most of our country’s history, U.S. immigration policies have reflected such sentiments, and at various times, all sorts of people have been blocked from entering the United States.
Here, however, I am interested in a different question: Whether the work of immigration advocates to help asylum seekers has contributed to the climate that produced Donald Trump.
Now wait just one gosh-darned second here, you say. Isn’t this like blaming Jews for the Holocaust or blaming African Americans for the KKK? I think there’s a difference. Allow me to explain–
Over the last 20 or so years, we’ve seen a marked expansion in the types of people who qualify for asylum. Some of this was Congressionally sanctioned–protecting victims of forced abortion, for example–but mostly, it was the result of creative lawyers pushing the boundaries of the law to protect their clients. Litigation has resulted in protection for victims of female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and forced marriage. To a more limited extent, victims of criminal gangs can also qualify for protection (sometimes), and many talented attorneys are working hard to improve asylum-case outcomes for such people, whose lives often are at risk.
Until about 2012 or 2013, the effort to broaden the categories of protection was somewhat theoretical. More people were eligible, but the number of asylum seekers actually applying remained relatively stable. But then things changed.
Between 2009 and 2012, increasing numbers of people–mostly Central American–began arriving at the Southern border to seek asylum (in FY 2009, there were about 5,500 such asylum seekers; in FY 2012, there were over 13,600). Since 2013, the numbers have skyrocketed. The most recent data shows that well over 6,000 people per month are requesting asylum at the border.
Most of the Central American applicants don’t easily fit within the traditional protected categories of asylum. They are fleeing criminal gangs and domestic violence, but given the expanded range of people who can qualify for protection, they now have a realistic possibility of receiving asylum.
As the number of migrants from Central America was on the upswing, activists for the DREAM Act began seeking asylum in order to highlight their own plight (the DREAM Act, which has been stalled in Congress, would grant residency to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and who have lived their lives in the United States, but who currently have no lawful immigration status). The DREAM activists received a lot of attention in the media, and they demonstrated in a public way that asylum seekers could arrive at the Southern border, request protection, and be paroled into the country to pursue their cases.
It seems likely that these two events–changes in the law wrought by litigation and wide-spread publicity about asylum seekers gaining entry into the U.S. at the border–helped lead to the current spike in migration. This is not to say that people coming here for asylum are not also fleeing severe violence in their home countries–they are: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are three of the most dangerous places on Earth. But when you look at data about violent crime in those countries, there is little evidence correlating increased violence with increased migration. In other words, these countries had previously been very violent; something else seems to have spurred the current wave of migration. Quite possibly, that “something else” includes an improved legal climate and publicity about asylum.
Added to all this is the Obama Administration’s decision to allow an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the U.S. at a time when fear of terrorism seems to be at an all-time high. This decision was not made in consultation with Congress; the President has the power to make such a decision and he did. A slew of Republicans weighed in against the move.
We now return to Donald Trump.
The idea that “liberal elites” are making decisions to encourage more immigration, and that ordinary Americans (i.e., Trump supporters) have no say in these decisions, fits neatly into Mr. Trump’s narrative. This world view is not unrelated to reality. Indeed, as we’ve seen, recent changes related to asylum and refugee policies likely have brought more immigrants to the United States, and these changes were not reached by consensus, or even by a democratic process. Rather, they were achieved through litigation and civil disobedience, or via executive action–all methods of choice for the “liberal elite.”
Should we–the liberal elite–have done things differently? I’m not sure, but I certainly won’t apologize for the work of advocates and activists to represent our clients and to expand the law. That is our job and our duty. The President’s decision to bring more Syrian refugees here was also the right choice, and–to me at least–represents a fairly tepid response to a massive crisis.
But obviously there is a problem. Many people feel left out of the decision-making process, and that is wrong. Immigration profoundly affects who we are as a country, and Americans–all Americans–have a right to participate in the policy debate on that topic. In taking action to protect our clients and save lives, we “elites” have, to a certain extent, trampled over the democratic process.
Perhaps this is all dust in the wind: People who support xenophobes like Mr. Trump aren’t likely to have their minds changed by refugee sob stories or even by evidence that immigration actually helps the country. The sad state of our national discourse has prevented the type of rational policy debate that we need to move towards a broader consensus. Against mounting evidence, the optimist in me still believes that democracy works. I’d like to see a little more of it in our national conversation about immigration.