Trump's 'Animals' Remark Explains Why He's Losing the Immigration Debate

The president can still advance his restrictionist agenda—but first he must accept that a large-scale amnesty is the only way to make it a reality.

President Trump speaks at a roundtable on sanctuary cities with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Thomas Homan on March 20, 2018.  (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

This story was updated on May 17, 2018 at 10:37 a.m.

Has Donald Trump declared that all of the unauthorized migrants his administration has deported from the U.S. are “animals”? A California sheriff, Margaret Mims, expressed her frustration in a meeting with Trump over the fact that a new state law had limited her local department’s ability to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, thus making it harder for federal immigration authorities to, in her words, “find the bad guys.” Mims lamented that even if she was holding a known member of MS-13, the notoriously brutal transnational gang, she might be barred from notifying ICE. The president responded forcefully: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”

Given the context, it is fairly clear that Trump was referring to violent offenders. But that is not how his message has been received. Recognizing an opportunity to strike a blow against the president, some of his opponents have suggested that he was referring to allunauthorized migrants, including mothers and children and countless others who command the sympathy of all decent people. When pressed on whether this is entirely fair, the response has almost invariably been that Trump does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump’s ferocious rhetoric has been one of his greatest assets. It helped him make mincemeat of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, and it continues to electrify his devotees. Yet this recent contretemps is a reminder that his rhetoric can also be turned against him, and to devastating effect.

Taken on its own, Trump’s stated goal of modernizing America’s immigration system by making it more selective and skills-based is quite popular. The reason the president has failed to translate this hidden consensus into concrete legislation is that, simply put, his stance on enforcement is perceived as capricious and cruel. Rather than strengthen the restrictionist cause, his poorly-targeted approach to deportations has enraged millions of Americans, and it risks sapping the legitimacy of immigration enforcement writ large. And it is this corrosive effect that truly threatens Trump’s restrictionist agenda. Whereas previous administrations have shrewdly sought to deprive opponents of sympathetic plaintiffs—to clearly separate the violent criminals from the unauthorized individuals who are so often their prey—the president’s willingness to target long-resident unauthorized migrants has been generating them by the thousands. If he is to have any hope of regaining the initiative, Trump must bite the bullet and accept that a large-scale amnesty is the only way to make immigration restriction a reality.

Consider the fact that around the country, a number of jurisdictions, many of them in the country’s biggest immigration gateways, have responded to the Trump-era surge in federal immigration arrests by pledging to resist Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We see intensifying opposition to ICE not just in California, which now declares itself a “sanctuary state,” but also in sprawling metropolises in the heart of more conservative states, where local prosecutors and sheriffs are successfully campaigning on their willingness to defy it. As Dara Lind of Vox suggests, the net effect of this political and cultural shift could be that immigration-enforcement efforts will grow markedly less effective, to the point where Trump will look upon President Obama’s enforcement record with envy.

To admissionists, the rise of sanctuary progressivism might seem like cause for optimism. It holds out the hope that the next president will preside over a sweeping amnesty, and perhaps even a complete dismantling of ICE and its enforcement apparatus. Yet it is far more likely that America’s immigration stalemate will continue. If Trump’s hardline rhetoric has provoked a backlash from the left, a more permissive successor would undoubtedly spark an equally forceful response from the right. Centrists who recoil from anti-immigrant cruelty will, under lax enforcement, balk at policies that seem to reward mass law-breaking. Sanctuary progressivism is no more capable of commanding durable majority support than punitive restrictionism. If these are the only two choices, we will be doomed to oscillating violently between them. The only way out is a grand bargain on immigration, albeit one very different from the grand bargain touted as recently as the Obama years.

Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, the outlines of a grand bargain seemed relatively clear. The left would get its amnesty, to help shield millions of foreign-born workers from exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous employers, though it would be euphemistically rebranded as a path to earned legalization, in deference to those with bitter memories of periodic amnesties that had come before. Meanwhile, the libertarian right, closely aligned with many of the very same unscrupulous employers frowned on by the left, would get a vast expansion of guest-worker visas and stringent limits on safety benefits of legalized migrants. As for restrictionists, they’d get the promise that once the new immigration system was up and running, illegal entries would be greatly reduced, thanks in large part to a strengthening of workplace enforcement. Because the vast majority of unauthorized migrants come to the U.S. in search of more remunerative employment, effective workplace enforcement has long been seen as the sine qua non of immigration control.

Yet without exception, restrictionists opposed this grand bargain, which in its Gang of Eight iteration would have greatly increased legal immigration levels. To them, the grand bargain was no bargain at all; rather, it was an attempt to marginalize their concerns that a sweeping amnesty would stimulate further unauthorized migration and that a superabundance of low-skill labor would exacerbate many of the country’s existing economic and social challenges. Partisans of the Obama-era grand bargain tended to see restrictionist opposition solely as a manifestation of ethnic chauvinism. This is despite the fact that, as the political scientists Morris Levy and Matthew Wright have observed, a substantial portion of the opposition to an amnesty is driven by a commitment to the rule of law. While amnesty advocates tend to see the issue in attribute-based terms—they want to grant unauthorized migrants legal status on the basis of their individual characteristics, such as their work ethic and their overall ability to make a positive contribution to the country—amnesty opponents are more inclined to make categorical judgments, in which individual merits aren’t really the issue: You could be a deeply admirable person, but you still broke the law, and you shouldn’t be rewarded for having done so. Levy and Wright find that as many as one-third of Americans reject the idea of an amnesty for unauthorized migrants on these grounds, without regard for ethnicity or class.

In short, the problem with the Obama-era grand bargain is that it got the correlation of forces wrong. Though libertarian conservatives are well-represented among elite Republicans, most of whom were, until recently, favorably disposed toward high immigration levels, their views were very much at odds with rank-and-file conservatives, and with older populist voters who had begun shifting their allegiances from an increasingly socially liberal Democratic Party to the GOP. Donald Trump recognized this cleavage within the Republican Party, and he leveraged it to secure its 2016 presidential nomination. So it is hardly surprising that he has endeavored to live up to his promises to the party’s restrictionist base by, among other things, committing ICE to arresting and deporting long-resident unauthorized migrants. Why should he change course now?

The reason is simple: While it is indeed true that a vocal minority of Americans opposes an amnesty, a large majority has come to accept it as desirable, inevitable, or both. As a result, enforcement efforts against unauthorized migrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for a decade or more, who represent 66 percent of the unauthorized population, are seen as an affront. While such sentiments are near-universal among Democrats, they are also quite common among Republicans. In November 2016, shortly after the presidential election, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Trump supporters favored an amnesty for unauthorized immigrants “who meet certain requirements.” As of last year, two-thirds of Trump supporters backed a DACA amnesty. When the president floated the idea of a more expansive amnesty in January, his remarks met with consternation from restrictionist activists, but failed to prompt a broader revolt among his supporters, either because the idea didn’t go anywhere or, perhaps, because he only offered it in exchange for larger concessions on future immigration flows.

This is essential to understanding why Democratic lawmakers have been so unwilling to make significant concessions in exchange for a DACA amnesty. If congressional Democrats agreed to, say, mandatory E-Verify, one of the more effective tools of workplace enforcement, as a condition of granting the Dreamers legal status, they would greatly limit the employment opportunities of millions of other unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the country for over a decade. Many GOP lawmakers have been similarly wary, and not just members of the party’s libertarian rump. One could argue that this reluctance to make significant concessions on behalf of the Dreamers speaks to the cynicism of separating the good, innocent unauthorized migrants who entered the country as minors from their culpable loved ones, who entered as adults. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most Americans don’t have the stomach to uproot the long-resident unauthorized population, and pretending otherwise makes immigration enforcement less tractable, not more so.

If the president really wants to sharply reduce unauthorized immigration, it is essential that he shore up the legitimacy of immigration enforcement, and cleave immigration centrists from the ranks of the sanctuary progressives. Realistically, the only way to do this is for Trump to offer a new grand bargain of his own: Building on the Secure and Succeed Act, he would call for limits on chain migration and serious workplace enforcement, two of the restrictionist movement’s core objectives, and in exchange he would accept an amnesty for unauthorized migrants who have peacefully resided in the U.S. for a lengthy period of time. To establish his credibility on this front, he could shift enforcement resources from long-stayers to more recent arrivals, with a particular focus on visa overstayers. Doing so would send a clear signal to potential migrants, which in turn would soon yield a steep decline in the unauthorized inflow.

Adopting this strategy would certainly not silence the president’s critics on the left, and it would provoke the ire of at least some rule-of-law restrictionists. Yet Trump’s vaunted connection to his base would, I suspect, be strengthened by such a move. His devotees see him as a man capable of achieving the most unlikely diplomatic breakthroughs. If he breaks America’s immigration stalemate, he can prove them right.