A 'Nixon Going to China' Moment for Trump on Immigration

A 'Nixon Going to China' Moment for Trump on Immigration
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A 'Nixon Going to China' Moment for Trump on Immigration
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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"The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” America’s dealmaker-in-chief wrote in his previous life as a New York real estate tycoon. “In other words, you have to convince the other guy it's in his interest to make a deal.”

In his current job as president of the United States, Donald J. Trump’s challenge was convincing Mexican officials it was in their interest to stem the tide of Central American migrants showing up at the U.S. border demanding asylum.

Mexico had called Trump’s bluff about paying for his “big beautiful wall,” but Trump had another card to play: the specter of tariffs on Mexican exports into U.S. markets. This threat did the trick. In response, the former ambassador from Mexico to the United States, Gerónimo Gutiérrez, said on Tuesday that his nation has increased the number of immigration agents along its 400-mile southern border and is trying to strengthen its refugee agency.

 “When presidents have spoken softly, nothing happened,” Marc Thiessen, a resident fellow for the American Enterprise Institute, also said Tuesday. “And when Trump picked up the big stick of tariffs, something happened. That’s the lesson.”

Both comments came at an AEI panel discussion, held in collaboration with the Migration Policy Institute, on ways the U.S. and Mexico can reduce illegal immigration and improve border security.

Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said there were other lessons to be learned from the border standoff. For one thing, migrants in Central America are now less willing to make the trip to the United States because word is getting around that it’s harder to get through Mexico. Selee also suggested that there is a less flattering way for Americans to view Trump’s gamesmanship on this issue. The U.S., he said, has essentially used the tariff threat to outsource its immigration policy to Mexico -- refusing to fix the problem itself.

“That’s a dangerous place to be in,” Selee added, noting that it is a stopgap approach. “Mexico … is happy to sort of assuage President Trump for a while.”

Gutiérrez echoed this concern, arguing that Trump’s tariff gambit is a short-term solution to a problem with deep political roots. Politicians on both sides of the border, he said, have been unwilling to suffer political costs in order to resolve the crisis.

 “President Trump is so atypical in many ways,” Gutiérrez said. “If he gets behind immigration seriously, there’s a chance [for reform]. … He has the credentials to do it.”

During Trump’s 2016 campaign, he promised his loyal base a wall along the Southern border. He reassured voters that he would keep the “bad ones” out but let the “good ones” stay. Two-and-a-half years into his presidency, there’s still no wall. And with another presidential campaign underway, the language coming from the 2020 Democratic candidates could not be more different than Trump’s aggressive rhetoric.  

At the Democrats’ first primary season debates last month, every candidate on stage the second night supported providing health care to illegal migrants, and eight of the 10 candidates backed decriminalizing border crossings.

Roger F. Noriega, a visiting fellow for AEI, told the audience Tuesday that the polarizing rhetoric surrounding the phrase “the wall” undermines confidence in border security in Mexico and in the U.S.

“It looks as if the gears are locking up here in Washington, where even the idea of enforcement resources is controversial,” he said. “And you have every Democratic candidate lining up against these efforts, criticizing U.S. enforcement in the worst possible terms, referring to them as concentration camps.”

Although Democrats and Republicans rarely come to an agreement, they were able to pass a bill for $4.6 billion in emergency border funding. Sarah Pierce, policy analyst for the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, said the House version of the bill contained legislation that would have shifted asylum adjudication from the immigration court system to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“USCIS actually conducts the initial asylum interview for many of these applicants … and we believe –– if they were in control of the final adjudication –– that they could adjudicate these cases within months, as opposed to years,” Pierce said.

Pierce also pointed out that both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are willing to make the adjudication process more efficient, but that Congress doesn’t have confidence that the executive branch would implement it properly.

“There’s not enough trust in the administration to implement this plan,” Pierce said.  

Still, Democrats may be in a better position on these issues than ever before. “If they were willing to give [Trump] the wall, or the fence –– whatever you want to call it –– he would give them the world,” Thiessen said.

Thiessen also said that if Trump gave his stamp of approval to a deal with Democrats, few Republicans would vote against it. For members of both parties, Trump’s all-or-nothing attitude about the wall presents an opportunity to address comprehensive immigration reform and border security.

Thiessen reflected back on his own time in the Bush administration. Although he wrote speeches for the president advocating sweeping immigration reform, along with enhanced border security, Americans weren’t yet ready to go there.

“Only Donald Trump could get comprehensive immigration reform,” Thiessen said. “This is ‘Nixon going to China’ on immigration. Otherwise, it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.”  

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