The immigration debate in America today is not really about immigration. Nor is it about national security, the economy, or the vagaries of our outdated asylum system. Like much else in our civic life, the immigration debate is mostly a proxy for domestic politics and the culture wars. It just happens to be a particularly potent proxy because it tends to elicit strong feelings about the American dream, ethnic identity, class, and nationhood. That is to say, immigration is an issue that’s ripe for exploitation and co-optation by both the Left and the Right. Each side can easily condemn the other without ever getting down to debating actual U.S. policy on its merits. This is one reason we still have an immigration system that dates from 1965.
For the Democrats and liberals in the media, immigration is the perfect issue to demonstrate the Left’s moral superiority, which forms the basis of its claim to power. Questions of policy become questions of morality: what you think of the border wall, for example, determines whether or not you are a good person. That’s why leftists don’t really need to grapple with any of the big questions about immigration reform or border security, and they certainly don’t have to address geopolitical questions about how we should relate to the failing states south of the Rio Grande. All they need to do is couch their moral condemnation in terms of a debate about immigration. The narrative does the rest for them.
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Hence one can read an entire book that purports to be about immigration—a book written by two veteran New York Times correspondents, advertised as an insider’s look at three tumultuous years of Trump Administration infighting and congressional intrigue—only to realize the whole thing is really just an extended argument that Trump is racist. Border Wars, by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear, is such a book. The authors don’t even try all that hard to hide their agenda; the subtitle gives it away: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration. In what follows, Davis and Shear do their best to turn the administration’s halting attempts at immigration reform into a real-life political thriller. They walk the reader through the 2017 travel ban, the fight over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), arcane changes to refugee programs, the short-lived family separation debacle, the government shutdown over border wall funding, and sundry other controversies.
Despite their best efforts, Border Wars is not a real-life political thriller. It is boring and tedious, often endeavoring to describe with novelistic flair the clunky machinery of Washington bureaucracy. Sensationalist anecdotes abound. We hear tales of former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly exchanging f-bombs in the Oval Office with former National Security Advisor John Bolton. We are told that Senators Richard Durbin and Lindsey Graham were reduced to tears by Trump’s infamous comment about immigrants coming from “shithole countries” in Africa and Central America. We learn that Trump’s Senior Advisor Stephen Miller was once accosted by protestors while out with his then-girlfriend at a fancy D.C. restaurant on New Year’s Eve.
But much of this falls flat because it is irrelevant filler. Moreover, some of the authors’ awkwardly recreated conversations from inside the White House and elsewhere are laughable. At one point, Davis and Shear go so far as to record former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s thoughts about the administration’s family separation policy: “‘Why is this suddenly the most important thing that has to be decided?’ she thought. ‘We have Russians about to attack our election again. Why now?’”
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The authors do more than over-dramatize the Washington bureaucracy. They bend the truth. In the very first chapter, for example, they argue Harvard economist George Borjas influenced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s views on immigration. The authors assert that Borjas “has said that immigrants have an adverse impact on the economy,” which is apparently supposed to explain how Sessions came to think so, too. But Borjas has never said any such thing. In his widely-acclaimed 2016 book, We Wanted Workers, Borjas drew on a massive body of research (including some of his own) to argue persuasively that the benefits of immigration are unevenly distributed across the economy. Higher levels of immigration increase the size of the workforce, which often means lower wages for workers and higher profits for employers. Davis and Shear never get into that, though, because it interferes with their narrative.
On one level, Border Wars is simply an extended ad hominem attack on the president and his advisors. But on another level—one that seems to escape Davis and Shear—this is really a book about how the Trump Administration has tried to wrest back control of U.S. immigration policy from an administrative state that commandeered it decades ago at the behest of a quiescent Congress. The “border wars” referred to in the title are not, as the authors suppose, conflicts between Trump and the Democrats, or Trump and Mexico, or even Trump and the migrants he’s trying to screen. The real fight is between Trump and the professional bureaucrats in the executive branch who have resisted executive interference in their administrative fiefdoms for decades. These entrenched pols are not about to obey a president and administration whose preferred immigration policies they loathe.
Consider the chapter on the Trump Administration’s efforts to reform a refugee designation known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990 to help those fleeing El Salvador’s civil war. Under the new law, Salvadoran refugees in the United States were granted legal status, meaning they could apply for work permits and stay for up to two years. The idea was that, once the crisis that prompted refugees to flee their homes had passed, they would be sent back. But that’s not what happened. In 1991, TPS was granted to Liberians caught up in that country’s civil war; in 1999, to Nicaraguans and Hondurans seeking safety in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch; in 2011, to Haitians displaced by an earthquake the year before. In the nearly three decades since its creation, TPS has brought hundreds of thousands of people to the U.S., many of whom have never left.
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Over time a bipartisan, D.C.-based consensus developed that TPS, despite its name and legal language, wasn’t really temporary. It became, as Davis and Shear themselves put it, “part of a larger diplomatic relationship that helped prop up struggling allies and advance American interests.” Recall that Trump was elected partly because Americans had become fed up with just this kind of beltway consensus—the kind that in their view had failed to secure the border, conflated American interests with special interests, and hollowed out the working class by shipping jobs overseas. No wonder, then, that Trump’s team saw TPS for the permanent entitlement it had become and set about ending it according to the terms of the law itself. And no wonder that the bureaucracy fought back, hard. We learn from Davis and Shear about a State Department functionary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs whose team, under pressure from the White House, drafted a memo recommending that TPS be ended. The memo proposed that the termination be delayed 36 months—almost until the end of Trump’s term in office—for the three biggest countries in the program (Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti). “It was never stated plainly,” write Davis and Shear, “but the idea was obvious: Embrace the president’s goal but move slowly enough on it that it would never actually be achieved.”
The book is rife with examples of this dynamic in practically every department of the federal government. In their telling, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke was a courageous civil servant, “the furthest thing imaginable from a political operator.” She did everything she could to fight the administration on DACA from within and protect “Dreamers” whose parents came to the U.S. illegally. Yet the authors acknowledge that Duke herself shared the White House’s view of DACA as “problematic and probably illegal.” Nevertheless, “there were limits to what Duke was willing to do to help the White House accomplish something she viewed as inhumane,” so she refused to sign the memo that would end the program. Nowhere in Border Wars is there any suggestion that if Duke really believed this, the right thing to do would have been to resign in protest.
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In June, after Border Wars’s release, the Supreme Court weighed in on DACA, and its decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California aptly captures how the federal bureaucracy always seems to expand and never contract. A 5-4 majority reached the bizarre conclusion that the Trump Administration didn’t properly follow the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and therefore could not simply end DACA by executive order—never mind that the program was created by presidential fiat under the previous administration, which itself did not follow the APA in creating DACA. Once created, legally or not, such programs prove almost impossible to shut down.
Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or legality of the DACA program, or a border wall, or TPS, or anything else in the tangled web that constitutes the U.S. immigration system. But if your job is to carry out the policy agenda of the president of the United States, then that’s what you do—unless, of course, you believe the federal bureaucracy is an authority unto itself. Likewise, if you set out to write a book about immigration policy under Trump, you do not present the public with a misleading hit job. Julie Davis and Michael Shear seem to believe that this is exactly their job, but in performing it they have revealed more than they might have wished about the priorities and power of the administrative state, and of our sleeping Congress.