President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

On legal immigration, Trump can’t seem to make up his mind

In his State of the Union address last month, Donald Trump ad-libbed five words that surprised those engaged in the immigration debate.

The president was supposed to say, “Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally.” When delivering the remarks, however, Trump actually said, “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever….”

That improved phrase suggested Trump, who’s spent most of his presidency demanding cuts to legal immigration, had reversed course. The trouble, of course, is that no one knew whether to take the declaration seriously.

The picture grew murkier still last week when, at a meeting of the president’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, Trump declared, “We’re going to have a lot of people coming into the country. We want a lot of people coming in. And we need it…. We want to have the companies grow. And the only way they’re going to grow is if we give them the workers.”

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Republican’s new posture has “ignited furious criticism from his hard-line, anti-immigrant supporters.”

“This is clearly a betrayal of what immigration hawks hoped the Trump administration would be for,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates cutting legal immigration by more than half. He warned that Mr. Trump was in danger of being “not even that different from a conventional Republican.”

Breitbart News, a conservative website that promotes anti-immigrant messaging, published on Thursday the latest in a series of articles attacking Mr. Trump for catering to big business at the expense of the Americans who put him in the Oval Office. “Trump Requests ‘More’ Foreign Workers as Southern Border Gets Overrun,” the site blared on its home page.

“That Mr. Trump would advance the interests of the global elite ahead of our citizens would be a tragic reversal on any day,” Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host, said in a televised rant against the president on Wednesday evening. “The White House has simply lost its way.”

The tension between competing Republican factions is inevitable and commonplace. The party’s corporate supporters see economic benefits to increased immigrant labor, while the party’s anti-immigration nativist wing push for drastic cuts to legal immigration.

The trouble is, both sides assume Donald Trump and the White House are on their side.

And, oddly enough, they’re both right. The president has endorsed – recently and publicly – both competing positions, making no effort to resolve the contradiction.

I won’t pretend to know which of Trump’s positions will be the official White House policy in the months ahead. I doubt anyone, including the president himself, could answer that question with any confidence.

But as we discussed after the State of the Union, the politics matters: Trump’s insistence on drastic cuts to legal immigration have been a sticking point for over a year, and if the president now wants the opposite of what he demanded, it’s easier to imagine real progress on the issue, complaints from the far-right base notwithstanding.

Because Trump has developed a reputation for being a confused leader who routinely says things he doesn’t mean, and who’s widely recognized as a poor negotiator because of his inconsistencies and willingness to vacillate, no one seems eager to get their hopes up.