When he ran for president in 2016, few of Donald Trump’s promises thrilled his supporters more than his pledge not just to build a wall on the southern border, but to force Mexico to pick up the tab. “And who’s going to pay for it?” he’d say at his rallies. The crowd would shout back joyfully, “Mexico!” It wasn’t about the money; the point was to conjure a fantasy of America standing tall and dominating our neighbor; their humiliation would be our glory.
A fantasy is just what it was, as Trump now admits. At a speech in Iowa on Sunday, he blurted out the truth. “When you hear these lunatics back there,” he said, pointing at the news media, “say, ‘Trump didn’t get anything from Mexico,’ well, you know, there was no legal mechanism. I said they’re going to help fund this wall, but there was no legal mechanism. How do you go to a country, you say, ‘By the way I’m building a wall, hand us a lot of money.’”
While Republicans have been talking about this problem for a long time, they haven’t done anything to solve it.
This admission — and vindication of Trump’s opponents — will not produce a wave of reflection and reassessment among his supporters. But Trump’s confession comes at the same time that his rivals for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination are trying to one-up him with their most preposterous proposals. In short, when it comes to immigration, the whole Republican Party has nothing to offer on what they claim is their single most important priority.
In fact, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Republicans are actually quite happy with the immigration system just the way it is. They love giving speeches about it, making campaign ads about it, shouting about it in Congress, shaking their fists about it on television, and organizing photo-ops at the Rio Grande. They repeat the words “open borders” like a mantra, threaten to impeach the secretary of homeland security, and tell everyone who’ll listen that America is being invaded by criminals and terrorists.
But while they’ve been talking about this problem for a long time, they haven’t done anything to solve it.
Look at what’s happening now. In Washington, immigration serves as an excuse for Republicans’ destructive attempts to shut down the government: They say they’ll pull back from their shutdown threats, but only if Democrats agree to a draconian immigration crackdown, which everyone knows will never happen. Meanwhile on the campaign trail, GOP presidential candidates offer only the loudest and dumbest ideas: Mass deportations of millions of immigrants! Amend the Constitution to end birthright citizenship! Invade Mexico!
Meanwhile, they’ve spurned any meaningful progress toward a long-term solution that would reform the immigration system. Everyone on both sides of the issue knows what such a deal would look like: Democrats would get protection for “Dreamers” who grew up in the United States and a path to citizenship for other undocumented residents, while Republicans would get more spending on border enforcement. There likely would also be stricter requirements that employers use the E-Verify system, to ensure that their workers are here legally, and an expanded guest worker program. And there would have to be expanded legal immigration; people go around the system because going through it is next to impossible.
Immigration is a complex policy problem, not a five-alarm crisis.
All that means compromise (and even under that basic framework, there would be lots of details to negotiate). But the vast majority of Republicans in Congress are dead-set against compromise. They remember what happened in 2013, when the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” came up with a comprehensive reform package that passed the Senate 68-32. The bill died in the House after right-wing media stoked a wave of opposition. One of the eight, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., until then a tea party hero, found himself branded a traitor.
When Rubio ran for president in the 2016 election, he awkwardly tried to disavow his own bill. That was because he was running against Donald Trump, who realized that what the Republican base wanted on immigration was not a solution but rage. That’s what he gave them, and they ate it up. It’s what Republicans have been giving the base ever since. Whenever a Republican or two works with Democrats on a compromise bill, other Republicans show no interest in it.
Perhaps those Republicans know what they would never say out loud: Immigration is a complex policy problem, not a five-alarm crisis. Some might claim that America is being “overrun” with undocumented immigrants. (In its worst form, these claims take the form of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory touted by Tucker Carlson and others.) In fact, the undocumented population has been stable at around 11 million for the last 15 years, as the flow of people coming in has been largely matched by an equal flow of immigrants returning to their home countries.
The truth is that lots of people benefit from keeping the immigration system just as it is now. Corporations get the benefit of a large pool of undocumented labor that’s easy to exploit. The conservative media gets a “crisis” they can use to scare their audience. And Republican politicians have the raw material to bash Democrats and gin up anger and xenophobia.
A few years back, Goldman Sachs put out a report on the biotech industry that asked, “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” Their worry was that cures would compromise the industry’s ability to keep milking patients for money over the long term. All the evidence of recent years suggests that the GOP’s position on immigration is the same. Fixing the problem would be an unsustainable political model. The current system, on the other hand, suits them just fine.