If we separate the policies pursued by the Republicans independently of Trump -- the massive tax cut and the attempt to kill Obamacare -- Trump's own 'policies' since becoming president have largely been more symbolic than substantive solutions to real issues. The ban on visits from predominantly Muslim countries; trade tariffs on friends and adversaries alike; the disdain for multilateral agreements; the proposed wall on the southern border; 'zero tolerance' for illegal entry to the US with its separation of children from their parents, all of these policies might be termed 'performative cruelty' -- ruthless provisions designed to appeal to the prejudices of most Trump supporters. Each has real-world, often devastatingly tragic consequences, but none of them are rationally thought-out policies that will solve the very real problems the USA faces. These policies, at least in the short term, predominantly impact 'others' rather than US citizens, and affect especially the 'others' that Trump has scapegoated as the cause of America's problems.
Tackling immigration, legal and illegal, has been perhaps the most popular rallying-call amongst Trump's base, and it is the issue that Trump has recently doubled-down on as the 'winning' issue for the November midterm elections. The single issue that Trump and his remaining hardliners believe will retain the GOP hold of Congress -- and not incidentally protect Trump from impeachment or prosecution.
The rhetoric frequently used by the Trump administration is that the current 'immigration crisis' was caused by Democrats and progressives wanting completely 'open' borders. Indeed, Trump has tweeted that the Democrats, "don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country." Beyond noting the dehumanizing language, it is worth pausing to consider how and why the southern border became such an issue. It requires understanding some history. (The following is adapted and lightly edited from the analysis prepared by Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson.)
Trump began his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that the new policy of separating children from their parents would deter illegal immigrants. Regardless of the inaccuracy, incipient racism and immorality of these claims, both have confused America's long history of Mexican immigration with a new, startling trend of refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and then cynically blaming Democrats for coddling criminals.
Problems with Mexican immigration stem not from Democratic softness on crime, but from a bipartisan 1965 law that reworked America's immigration laws. The law in 1965 was the first comprehensive reform of the immigration regime that prevailed since 1924. In the 1920s US immigration law limited immigration according to quotas assigned to each country. Those countries were heavily weighted toward western Europe, virtually prohibiting immigration from Asia and Africa, and dramatically curtailing it from southern Europe.
The 1924 law did not monitor immigration from Latin America at all, for the simple reason that from the time the current border was set in 1848 until the 1930s, people moved back and forth across it without restrictions. Laborers, especially, came from Mexico to work on the huge American farms that came to dominate the US agricultural sector, especially after 1907, when the Japanese workers who had been taking over those jobs were (unofficially) kept out of the country. The US government actively encouraged that immigration during WWI, to help increase production.
The 1930s Great Depression coupled with the disaster of the western plains Dust Bowl made destitute westerners turn on Mexican migrants, (as well as on their poor white neighbors, as John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath). The government rounded up Mexicans and shipped them back over the border.
But World War II made migrant laborers vital again, and to regularize the system, the US government in 1942 started a guest worker policy called the "Bracero" Program. It was supposed to guarantee that migrant workers were well treated, paid, and housed adequately. But employers happily hired illegal as well as legal workers, and American workers and their trade unions complained. President Eisenhower returned about a million illegal workers in 1954 under "Operation Wetback," only to have officials readmit most of them as braceros. It was President Kennedy who initiated the process that ended the Bracero program in 1964.
The end of that system coincided with congressional reworking of the 1924 immigration act. In the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Congress wanted to end the racial quota system of immigration and replace it with one that did not so obviously discriminate against Asia and Africa. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act opened immigration to all nations, setting a general cap on total immigration levels. But southern congressmen, appalled at the idea of black immigration, introduced a provision that privileged family migration, arguing that "family unification" should be the nation's top priority. They expected that old-stock immigrants from western Europe would use the provision to bring over their relatives, which would keep the effect of the 1924 law without the statute. But their provision had the opposite effect. It was new immigrants who wanted to bring their families; not old ones. So immigration began to skew heavily toward Asia and Latin America.
At the same time, Hart-Celler put a cap on Latin American immigration for the first time, just as the guest worker program ended. The cap was low: 20,000, although 50,000 workers were coming annually at that point. And American agribusiness depended on migrant labor. Workers continued to come as they always had, and to be employed (and exploited), as always. But now their presence was illegal. In 1986, Congress tried to fix the problem by offering amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans who were living in the United States and by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers. But rather than ending the problem of undocumented workers, the new law exacerbated it by beginning the process of guarding and militarizing the border. Until then, migrants into the United States had been offset by an equal number leaving at the end of the season. Once the border became heavily guarded, Mexican migrants quite understandably refused to take the chance of leaving and not being able to re-enter.
Since 1986, US politicians have refused to deal with this disconnect, which grew in the 1990s when NAFTA flooded Mexico with US corn and drove Mexican farmers to find work, largely in the American Southeast. But this 'problem' is hardly either new nor suddenly catastrophic. While it is estimated that about 6 million undocumented Mexicans currently live in the United States, most of them -- 78% -- are long-term residents, resident in the USA more than ten years. Only 7% have lived in the USA less than five years. (This is a much more stable ratio than undocumented immigrants from any other country.) And since 2007, the number of Mexicans living illegally in the United States has declined by more than a million. The Mexican economy is good enough that more Mexicans are leaving America these days than coming. Undocumented Mexican "criminals and rapists" are not really the issue at hand.
What is happening right now at America's southern border is thus not really about Mexicans at all. It is a relatively new issue, which began around 2014. The people now arriving at the US southern border, where children are separated from their parents, are generally from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, countries with warlike levels of violence that are creating masses of refugees. (And longstanding US support of rightwing regimes in those states is in no small part a reason why that violence has become endemic.) Those people now arriving in Mexico from those countries are not sneaking over the border for work or to commit crime; they are refugees applying for asylum, which is legal in the United States. And while the Trump administrations is trying to stop them by taking their children, researchers say that, while it is possible to discourage economic migrants -- like most Mexicans -- no deterrent will stop migrant refugees, for they are fleeing potential death.
But all of this history is irrelevant to Trump. Whether refugees, economic migrants or actual criminals, people wanting to enter the US from the southern border are all a 'national security' problem. And taking a 'tough' stance against these 'enemies' plays well with his supporters. Don't expect that attitude to change, regardless of the facts.