In the midst of a lengthy and mostly familiar discussion of the lawless state of America’s southern border during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said, rather unexpectedly, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” That line immediately attracted the ire of restrictionists, many of whom noted that the “in the largest numbers ever” part was not in Trump’s prepared remarks. Given his propensity toward hyperbole, this could be dismissed as little more than a rhetorical flourish. One wonders, though, if it’s a sign of things to come.
For one thing, it’s in keeping with Trump’s apparent openness to high-skill admissions, as evidenced by his stated desire to revamp the H-1B visa program“to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the U.S.” Embracing high-skill immigration could give Trump something to talk about other than his polarizing border wall.
And the president could use a dose of immigration centrism. Trump’s fixation on a border wall has done little to boost his political fortunes, let alone the restrictionist cause. There is considerable evidence that his vocal opposition to immigration has made voters more inclined to support immigration, rather than less; though this effect is most pronounced among Democrats, as one might expect, Republicans haven’t been entirely immune. The net effect of Trump’s rise seems to be that while a shrinking GOP coalition has embraced restrictionism, the country as a whole is moving firmly in the opposite direction. Though jettisoning the cause of immigration control would be a mistake, railing against immigration per se has proved a dead end.