About a year ago I was speaking to a local group of senior citizens – all of them men – and they became hostile to my criticism of the then-nascent presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
If you recall, Trump had attacked Mexico and Mexicans as a tactic for making a splash at the unveiling of his presidential campaign.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said as he announced his run for the Republican nomination at the Trump Tower in Manhattan on June 16, 2015. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
I had been asked by the senior citizens group to talk about Trump’s comments and address his pledge to build a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. To say this talk did not go well would be to give new meaning to the word understatement.
By the time it was over, I did not want to have lunch with these guys, as is their custom with guest speakers. I left after facing their benighted views, the same views that are driving Trump’s campaign today. These views are impervious to facts.
When I told these guys that net immigration from Mexico to the U.S. had trickled to the lowest numbers in years, they didn’t buy it. But it’s a fact.
When I told them that Trump was using the border as boogeyman, that the Obama administration had been spending huge amounts on immigration enforcement, they didn’t want to hear it. But it’s a fact.
It became apparent that the hostility I faced while discussing Trump with guys who were 65 and over had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with identity. It was a waste of my spit to talk about the global economic factors driving immigration to the U.S. when this constituency of older voters could only view the issue through the prisms of their own experiences.
These guys, most of them white, were resistant to my take on Trump because of how immigration was affecting their view of what America should be. They were part of a generation that had lived long enough to see the Latino population grow from a minority to the largest ethnic group in California.
So the fact that deportations of undocumented immigrants have reached all-time highs? It didn’t matter to them. They were bullish on Trump’s pledge to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Never mind the astronomical costs of even attempting mass deportations.
I met Trump’s core audience that day a year ago, voters fed up with demographic changes in America that are inexorably linked to immigration patterns. And the contentious national debate over immigration continues. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Obama from circumventing Congress and protecting vulnerable immigrants from deportation via executive order. Obama has said he made the order after Republicans in Congress repeatedly refused to pass bipartisan immigration reform.
The program blocked by a 4-4 Supreme Court vote is called the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. It affects 5 million people who are the undocumented parents of American citizens or lawful residents. Allowing it to stand would have spared these folks the fear of deportation and allowed them to have work permits. It would have meant 5 million less “illegal” people in America who also would have been working legally, their wages legitimately taxed.
Aside from the humanitarian benefits of keeping families together, tax rolls across America would benefit from DAPA.
The irony is that Obama is blasted by immigration advocates as “Deporter-In-Chief” for stepping up deportations. Obama had hoped that his willingness to fortify the border and deport undocumented immigrants would lead to a compromise that would achieve immigration reform that would have legalized millions of people.
It never happened because the fact that the border had been strengthened and the fact that Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president has been ignored by many. Trump campaigns in California and promotes the untruth of an “open border” and people buy it.
“Why do you call yourself Mexican American?” one gentleman asked as I talked about Trump last year. “Why don’t you just say you’re American?”
I am American. I’ve voted in every election since I was 18. I registered for military service. I’ve paid my taxes without fail. (By the way, can Trump make the same claim?)
But that’s beside the point. The point, as I understand it, is being American in the way that these older white folks define it. During that discussion, we were talking past each other. We weren’t even talking about the same thing.
When I told these guys that we, as Americans, are hurting ourselves economically by refusing to pass immigration reform, they laughed. But don’t take my word for it: “About 8 million undocumented immigrants are employed in some way, and the report estimates that deporting them all in two years would shrink the U.S. labor force by 6.4 percent. That’s a lot of suddenly unfilled jobs,” wrote The Wall Street Journal in March.
As David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote in February: “The bulk of the evidence shows that immigrants have a hugely positive effect on total American GDP while having little effect on overall wages.”
More immigrants are coming from Asia now than Latin America, but you don’t hear much about that because it doesn’t fit the narrative of fear. It’s hardly an American phenomenon. Xenophobia was a primary factor in voters in Thursday’s decision by U.K. voters to abandon the European Union. That vote, already having perilous economic effects on the English pound, was carried by older, white voters angry at how globalization was changing their country.
The younger generation of the U.K. voted to stay in the EU to avail themselves of economic opportunities across Europe. But voters 65 and older voted to leave the EU. The migration of Eastern Europeans to the U.K. was seen as a major factor among older voters concerned about the changing demographics of their county.
By Friday, European stocks had plummeted, the British prime minister resigned and there were fears that the U.K. would splinter in the aftermath.
That’s what happens when fear of “the other” trumps logic and facts. That fear can sway otherwise good people. I’ve seen it face to face.
Come November, what might it do to our country?