Donald Trump Sidelines Immigration Economics in 2020 Campaign

US President Donald Trump holds a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida, October 12, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s populist immigration agenda was central to his 2016 triumph — but he has not focused on the economic impact of immigration in his 2020 reelection bid despite the huge economic damage it is doing to blue-collar and white-collar Americans, say immigration activists.

Instead, Trump in 2020 portrays immigration via social-issue concerns over crime, welfare spending, border integrity, and the federal government’s inability to get things done. For example, Trump’s August 28 acceptance speech downplayed the money:

Today America’s borders are more secure than ever before.

We ended catch and release, stopped asylum fraud, took down human traffickers who prey on women and children, and we have deported 20,000 gang members and 500,000 criminal aliens. We have already built 300 miles of border wall, and we are adding ten new miles every single week. The wall will soon be complete, and it is working beyond our wildest expectations.

“I don’t think he’s walking away from populism — he probably is convinced that he has done a huge amount,” said Rosemary Jenks, policy director at NumbersUSA. “He signed the executive orders [that blocked border migration]. He’s building the wall. … We have more [migrant] caravans trying to get to our border, but the Mexican government is stopping them, and that would not be happening in a [Joe] Biden administration.”

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy at the Department of Homeland Security, is championing Trump’s 2020 campaign. “Immigration isn’t just about the rule of law; it is also about the opportunity for Americans to get jobs that otherwise go to other people — and this president has zeroed in on that problem,” Cuccinelli told Tucker Carlson October 22. “When COVID did hit and unemployment spiked, he also in June, as you’ll recall, stopped the entry of temporary foreign workers so Americans can get back to work in opening up job slots first.”

Yet the populist jobs-and-wages aspect of immigration is almost entirely absent from Trump’s 2020 campaign pitch, even in the critical swing states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Many polls show that job competition is the populist sweet-spot angle in immigration politics.

Most Americans — of all colors and incomes — feel they should welcome migrants, even illegal migrants or corporate outsourcing workers. But the polls also show that lopsided majorities strongly prefer that jobs and wages go to Americans before companies are allowed to import and hire migrants.

In October, Rasmussen Reports posted polling data showing the public’s lopsided preference for higher wages over extra immigrants. The poll asked likely voters, “When businesses say they are having trouble finding Americans to take jobs in construction, manufacturing, hospitality, and other service work, what is generally best for the country?”

Sixty-four percent of likely voters said it would be “better for businesses to raise the pay and try harder to recruit non-working Americans even if it causes prices to rise.” Just 20 percent said it would be “better for the government to bring in new foreign workers to help keep business costs and prices down.”

The crosstabs show the 3:1 electoral power of immigration seen as a jobs issue: 55 percent of liberals support more foreign workers, and 73 percent of conservatives favor hiring Americans. Swing-voting “others” split 63 percent in favor of Americans and 19 percent in favor of foreign workers, in part because the pocketbook question complements the public’s widespread desire to be decent and fair towards racial minorities.

This populist focus is underlined by the coronavirus crash — and the Rasmussen poll also shows it is very popular among the many white-collar, middle-class, swing-voting men and women that Trump needs to win in 2020.

Trump is a businessman who understands how the supply of labor is related to wages.

He also knows that a politically useful share of voters really hates the H-1B outsourcing visa. In 2016, he promised to shrivel the H-1B program, and, finally, in late 2020, he announced strong— but legally vulnerable — rules to reduce the inflow of visa workers. He also staged an August press conference to show himself saving roughly 200 Americans’ jobs from H-1B outsourcing by the CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Partly because of Trump’s lower-immigration policies, household incomes rose by seven percent in 2019, aided by a 2.5 percent growth in median personal income. That growth has helped him win more support among younger Hispanics and African Americans and among his base of working-class white Americans. For example, Trump won strong applause at an October 13 rally in Pennsylvania when he said, “in 2017, I proudly signed a historic executive order, making it official government policy to buy American and hire American.”

But Trump the politician also knows that business groups, donors, and investors really want more of the immigrants and visa workers who provide them with cheap, compliant, stock-boosting labor. “In perhaps no area did the Washington special interests try harder to stop us than on my policy of pro-American immigration,” Trump said in his August 28 acceptance speech.

Trump’s 2020 reluctance to mention the money in immigration was underlined by his response in an exchange over amnesty during the October 22 presidential debate.

Trump talked about how his energy policy has helped raise wages for black and Latino Americans, how his tax policy has boosted Americans’ 401K accounts, how minimum wages should be tuned to each state’s economy. But Trump ignored the issue of wages when Joe Biden said Americans owe an amnesty to at least 11 million illegal migrants:

Biden: Many of them are model citizens. Over 20,000 of them are first responders out there taking care of people during this crisis. We owe them, we owe them

Trump: He had eight years to do what he said he was going to do and I’ve …. got rid of catch and release, we got rid of a lot of horrible things that they put in and that they lived with but he had eight years he was vice president … It just shows that he has no understanding of immigration or the laws. Catch and release is a disaster, a murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in. We would take their name, we have to release them into our country and then you say they come back. Less than 1 percent of the people come back.

At an October 15 town hall event, Trump was asked what he would do to help the roughly 700,000 younger illegals who got work permits from President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) amnesty.

He repeated his support for the illegals. “We’re going to take care of ‘dreamers.’ It’s working right now; we’re negotiating different aspects of immigration and immigration law,” as he zig-zagged through his pro-migration and anti-migration worldview.

Trump zagged towards disease, crime, chaos, borders, and foreigners:

We’ve built now over 400 miles of border wall on the southern border. Mexico is working very closely with us. We have the strongest border we’ve ever had. … Mexico is heavily infected, as you know, and we’ve made it very, very difficult to come in because of the pandemic and other reasons, and crime. But we have a very strong border right now, and we have to keep it that way … The fact is we got rid of catch-and-release [at the border], which is a disaster. You know, if you catch somebody — they could be a murderer, they could be a rapist — I was forced to release them into our country. These are the laws that I inherite!. We ended that program.

Trump’s comments were a mirror-image of Democrats’ don’t-mention-the-money insistence that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, that diversity is strength, and that equality is threatened by xenophobia and racism.

Yet Trump also zigged towards orderly, managed, clean, high-quality migration:

We want people to come into our country. They have to come in legally, but we are working very hard on the DACA program. And you will be — I think — very happy over the course of the next year because I feel the same way as you do. … But we want people to come into our country. But they have to come through a merit system, and they have to come in legally, and people are very, very happy with it. You haven’t heard any complaints about that.

In reality, there are many loud complaints in many states about the damage done by white-collar “merit” migration, said Kevin Lynn, founder of U.S. Tech Workers. “Everyone knows what is going with immigration — the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Lynn.

“The large-scale importation of these routine [H-1B] tech workers has a harmful effect on American workers, and the president is not alone in not appreciating that,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “This is one area of immigration where the president’s views are completely consistent with those of the swamp.”

“The president thinks that white-collar immigration is perfectly okay and nobody he knows is against it, even though he’s got supporters who are concerned about it. He only talks about it in very narrow contexts. [For example], he imagines that the H-1B replacement of American workers is some kind of aberration that doesn’t need to happen if everybody follows the rules, when in fact that’s not the case. … He sees the issue of the TVA [in 2020] and the Disney tech workers [in 2016] as special cases, as mistakes, as exceptions to a positive phenomenon rather than examples of a real problem.”

“The president is not an immigration restrictionist,” Krikorian said. “I don’t think this is a casual thing that he doesn’t care about and can be easily swayed out of. I think that he has internalized the lobbyists’ malarkey that [immigration and visa workers are] necessary for American economic growth and progress. I am skeptical that anything is going to talk him out of it, as if somebody from Goldman Sachs had called him up and say, ‘Hey Donnie, this is what we’re going to do.’”

For the political and corporate elites who mix with Trump, “it is [a belief that] is just in the air, just an assumption that they all share; it is part of the zeitgeist, not some specific policy recommendation that they’re demanding that he follow,” Krikorian said.

Other observers offer a less charitable explanation for Trump’s mixture of visceral opposition to illegal, uncontrolled migration and his establishment-like acceptance of controlled migration.

Trump thinks many of his supporters oppose migration for racial reasons, says author and reporter Salena Zito. “Voters don’t hold the racial resentments and fears Trump seems to think they do … [but] Trump seems to think his base is racist. Forget the fact that the media thinks they are, Trump campaigns as if they are,” she wrote in 2018.

“Despite mocking academia and the media as biased, the president seems to have fully bought into their [racist] caricature of the Republican voter,” said Musa al-Gharbi, a non-progressive professor at Columbia University. “He keeps giving his voters what he thinks is red meat, and [middle-class whites] continue to recoil in horror and abandon him for it.”

“Trump campaigns like a Manhattan liberal[‘s] parody of a conservative,” said Jane Coaston, a reporter at Vox.com.

A similar view is pushed by Todd Schulte, the director of FWD.us, a pro-migration advocacy group funded by wealthy, West Coast investors, “I’ve spent a few years saying this, but there is just near-constant and overwhelming evidence that his signature issue of 2016–anti-immigrant demagoguery—has been a huge drag for 3 years,” Schulte tweeted October 11. Schulte declined to comment about the political power of an immigration message focused on jobs and wages.

Other administration appointees are trying to keep immigration economics out of the 2020 race — especially any criticism of white-collar migration via the J-1, H-1B, OPT, L-1 worker pipelines that keep at least 1.3 million cheap and compliant foreign workers in U.S. Fortune 500 jobs. This quiet group wants to build a high-low coalition of billionaires and blue-collars, so it keeps Trump far from polling data or the policy options that would guide him to win more votes from blue-collar minorities and white-collar suburbanites voters, reformers tell Breitbart News.

And the establishment media does little or nothing to show Americans the economic impact of immigration, said Lynn. “There is no pressure being brought on Trump to look at broader immigration issues,” he said.

“The media listen to the corporations that buy their advertising,” Lynn said. “The reporters know what will and what won’t get published. It is only the stray article that speaks to the economic impact of unbridled immigration, to the impact of displacing native workers because of the non-immigration visa programs.” Instead, the vast majority of media coverage is about migrants’ and employers’ interests, not about Americans seeking jobs and wages.

Without public pressure, “events are pretty much on autopilot, which means more immigration and more displacement of Americans and more offshoring [of jobs].”

Trump’s reluctance to focus on economics is pressuring reformers to make alternative appeals.

For now, reformers — aided by a growing number of activist white-collar professionals — are assembling the evidence to show the variety of damage caused by the visa-worker pipelines.

These pipelines undermine U.S. innovation, threaten Americans’ economic and healthcare privacy, cause workplace discriminationfatten coastal states, impoverish inland states, distort university enrollment, shrink the domestic supply of skilled labor, expand illegal immigration, displace American healthcare graduates, create new labor markets where Americans cannot get jobs, threaten free speech online, and deny vital opportunities to young American graduates of all backgrounds and colors.

Yet Trump can be persuaded to focus on the economic impact of migration on Americans because he “responds to what he feels pressure on,” said Lynn. For example, Trump improved his NAFTA-replacement deal with Mexico and Canada when left-of-center unions pressured him, he said.

After a careful online ad campaign that spotlighted the huge salary paid to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s CEO, Trump also intervened to save 200 Americans’ jobs in one tiny corner of the vast 600,000-job H-1B outsourcing program. He touted that paycheck-politics success in his White House speech announcing his acceptance of the GOP nomination:

When I learned that the Tennessee Valley Authority laid off [200] hundreds of American workers and forced them to train their lower-paid foreign replacements, I promptly removed the chairman of the board, and now those talented American workers have been rehired and are back providing power to Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia. They have their old jobs back, and some are here with us this evening.

“I think that they should be shouting that from the rafters,” said Lynn. “But, they’re not.”

If Trump touts the immigration-economics policies that avoid racial conflicts and help blue-collar and white-collar employees, Lynn said, “he could own labor … [and] he would win this election handily.”

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