Donald Trump's State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress represents a possible turning point for the future of U.S. immigration policy. With a speech decidedly more measured in tone and motivated by unflattering projections and polls for the GOP in the 2018 legislative elections, the president went from ideological arrogance and aggressive chauvinism in last year's inauguration speech to calibrated populism and deliberate nativism. In a tirade reminiscent of Hitler's “Volk und Vaterland” rhetoric, Trump equated immigrants with criminality and the border with terrorists, spinning a narrative to pit millions of Americans against “The Other.” And with no shame whatsoever, he made it clear that the potential resolution to the immigration status of 1.8 million undocumented youngsters, the so-called Dreamers,* will come with the condition of imposing on the country the xenophobic vision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, and that of the president himself.
And so it is that the speech is a sort of unmasking. Since the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program implemented by Obama to grant “Dreamers” legal protection against deportation was canceled last year, Trump has publicly taken contradictory positions with regard to these young people. It was as if he did not know if he wanted to free the hostage, keep him prisoner, or just execute him. But the speech makes it abundantly clear that they are pawns in order to carry out the most draconian cuts to legal immigration since the Immigration Act of 1924, which was designed to avoid what Congress considered at the time to be the racial degradation of the United States by the arrival of Italians and Eastern Europeans, specifically Jews. Today, the White House offers to legalize “Dreamers” in exchange for radically reforming and reducing — especially in terms of familial reunification — the authorized immigration system, ignoring the role it plays in the country’s social and economic vitality, and slashing protections for asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors. It would cancel the visa lottery — which does not include Mexico — that promotes migratory diversity, and with it the possibility that nearly 22 million people could choose to legally migrate to the United States over the next half-century. And he wants, of course, a budgetary allocation of $25 billion to strengthen border security, including The Great Wall of Trump.
Trump's biased proposal is a hard-line anti-immigrant wolf in sheep's clothing tied to the legal status for “Dreamers.” Should Democrats, activists and some Republicans who want to protect these young people — almost 1.3 million of whom are Mexican — accept this deal with the devil? I have not the slightest doubt that what Trump has put on the table is a bad deal, both from the perspective of public opinion as well as politically. Poll after poll shows most Americans are in favor of legal status for “Dreamers.” And while a third of the U.S. electorate wants more restrictions on immigration — many of them make up Trump’s base — two-thirds are against. Moreover, a recent Pew Center survey shows that the vast majority do not think immigration should be one of the main priorities for the federal government at this time. In almost every democracy, these numbers will result in unavoidable truths: The “restrictionists” cannot plunge the country into such a dramatic cut in documented migration, and accepting an unpopular proposal from an unpopular president is a recipe for the minority party to remain a minority.
And Mexico? How should it deal with this proposal? Like almost everything in America’s immigration debate, there are no simple black and white answers and some objectives can contradict others. If Trump's plan moves ahead in its entirety, which is very unlikely, many of our documented countrymen could be affected by the impossibility of bringing their families to the U.S. But the migratory regularization of more than a million Mexicans would represent a sharp turn in their lives. It is easy to talk about, but harder to do.
*Editor’s Note: Though a popular term, “Dreamer” is an inaccurate way to describe DACA recipients. The DREAM Act – Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – was a federal proposal that offered many of the same protections as DACA but was never approved in Congress.