The third and final Presidential debate will focus, in part, on the big topic that started it all: immigration. It fueled both Trump’s rise and some of the most passionate opposition to him. But increasingly, it feels less like we are having an argument and more like we have become two nations talking past each other on this subject. Evidence from the front lines of immigration proceedings backs this up.
Recently, the Washington Post provided some statistical evidence illustrating the divide. The story dove into how our immigration courts are handling the surge of people who have arrived from Central America since 2014 claiming asylum status on account of gang violence and rampant official corruption. Because simply coming from a dangerous, violent place doesn’t fit the traditional parameters of a asylum claim, the immigration cases regarding the Central American surge have served as a cultural and judicial Rorschach test. It’s possible to look at these claims and say that clearly the law was designed to provide the innocent with sanctuary from violence. It’s also possible to look at the law and say that clearly it was designed to provide an exception to normal immigration law only in exceptional cases—those caught here when wars broke out in their homeland—rather than a legal right to emigrate away from unpleasant, violent, but by traditional definitions ‘peaceful’ places.
While immigration is a federal responsibility and immigration courts are federal courts, appointments to them are influenced by a state’s Senators and other local factors. The results:
Nationally, 48% of asylum claims are granted. But in New York, 84% are, while in Atlanta, only 2% are. That’s not a statistical variation. That is, de facto, two systems operating in the same country.
Clinton supporters look at places like Atlanta and see a sizeable chunk of the nation as indifferent to the suffering of non-whites and foreigners. Trump supporters look at the rulings coming out of places like New York, and they see elites that are indifferent to the plight of their own countrymen in rural and ex-industrial areas, hypocritically pleading pity to create a work-around our immigration laws—or even a backdoor amnesty. Some Trump supporters view this as part of a larger plot to drown out their voices demographically and politically. And of course, the asylum claims are just piece in an even bigger and more complicated puzzle when it comes to our broken immigration system.
The truth is, both on the specific issue of the Central American refugees and the larger immigration issues that are likely to be brought up tonight, neither party’s answers are adequate to our problems right now. Trumpist populism is inchoate—polls of both the public and of Republicans can show demands for full citizenship for illegals, mass deportations, and everything in between. Relatedly, it fails to wrestle adequately with either the new political realities created by the last 50 years of immigration or the practical obstacles to many of its demands (e.g., how can you deport over 10 million people?). Trump himself simply makes these problems worse, as he has neither policy answers to remedy these defects nor even enough consistency and integrity for anyone to know for sure what he would really do on immigration.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are pushing for a repeat of the failed 1986 amnesty-for-enforcement deal, and playing with fire in doing so. The last time around, illegal crossings were back up to pre-deal levels within a year; if that happened after another amnesty in our current political climate, the resulting populist explosion would dwarf the Trump movement. You have to wonder if Clinton herself may be praying for gridlock with a GOP House on this front.
That’s the most likely immediate option, and if so, we have a bit of breathing space for each side to figure out some better plans and how to bridge the gap that the Central American crisis illustrates. But they will do so in an atmosphere that will likely remain tense. It won’t just be tonight that immigration policy is at center stage: the topic is likely to be at the heart of American political debates for a while.