US President Donald Trump’s migration discourse has been put to a tough test, that of a global pandemic. But the “build-a-wall” rhetoric has emerged more resilient than one would have imagined. Even while the United States face a healthcare emergency, an economic crisis, and protests are sweeping across the country, Trump has managed to not put aside his focus on curbing migration; quite the contrary.
Since the end of March, the Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC) has authorised blocking people from entering the country because of the potential “introduction of covid-19”. In practice, CDC’s order authorised blocking migrants at the border, and expelling them within a few hours, essentially putting a halt also to asylum requests. From April to August, 89% of the more than 160thousand migrants who have attempted to cross the US southern border have been expelled. The government justified the order as necessary for sanitary reasons and to avoid overcrowding at border entry points. At the same time, the president has also taken action with regards to regular migration. In April Trump has suspended the emission of some green cards and in June extended it to include the suspension of some temporary visas until the end of this year. These include visas for highly qualified workers. Justification? To save the jobs of American citizens who are dealing with a soaring unemployment rate. Never mind that evidence points in another direction.
During the pandemic, Trump has not only maintained his focus on curbing migration but strengthened his efforts to do so. A significant part of his Facebook ads targeted immigration, in contrast to democratic candidate Joe Biden’s ads that focused on mainly healthcare. Furthermore, the number of immigration policy changes increased from an already impressive rate of one every three days to one every two. Trump’s migration discourse didn’t only prove to be resilient throughout the pandemic but was an essential part of his policy response to the situation, from blocking flights from China, to limiting visas for qualified workers.
Therefore, also with a pandemic, Trump still relied heavily on anti-immigration sentiments for his political strategy. His choice makes sense: in part, it works out because it is a topic that galvanises his base. Immigration is in fact the perfect culture war, a topic that can be approached as a battle for American ideals and national identity, rather than debating policies’ technicalities. Four years ago, Trump’s presidential campaign took off with chants of “build a wall” and “make Mexico pay”, more than it would have by studying and discussing the impact of migrant workers on the economy.
On the other hand, migration governance is something Trump can deliver on more easily compared to other issues. During his four years as president, Trump has managed to deeply transform the US immigration system accomplishing more than 400 policy changes, especially thanks to executive orders that bypassed Congress. Many of these changes have indeed been challenged in court, but Trump’s “layered approach” to immigration – reaching each objective with a series of regulations and policy changes – insulates many of his initiatives from court disjunction. If Biden were to be elected, it would probably take months if not years for his administration to undo all of Trump’s migration policy changes.
More than exploiting the pandemic to restrict immigration, Trump exploited immigration policy changes to respond to the pandemic. Coronavirus was indeed an opportunity for the president to further limit access to the country, a goal he has long advocated for. But most importantly, migration was an opportunity for Trump to show he was taking swift action against the spreading of the virus that he framed as an external threat, whilst also shifting attention to more familiar debates that lie within his comfort zone.
More recently, relying on the migration evergreen, however, has become during the pandemic a riskier bet to make. During 2019, Americans chose immigration as “the most important problem facing the US”. Today, that priority has fallen behind other issues such as healthcare, the economy and crime, also for republicans. At less than two months from the election, with some states that already have started to vote by post or with early voting, migration discourse might not be enough to win a second term. It comes to no surprise therefore that Trump is now refocusing his message by giving vocal attention to “law and order”. The question is: will Trump pay a price for having played his migration playbook perhaps far too long into one of the toughest moments of American history?