Picking up the pieces: the 2016 US Presidential Election and immigration

Like many, I watched the US presidential election unfold with a sense of disbelief. In an election that most pundits had predicted would be a victory for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, state after state went to Republican candidate Donald Trump. By the next morning, a new political geography was apparent: large blue dots for major US cities and smaller red dots throughout the rest of the country. What will Trump’s America hold for immigration, beyond promises of a wall between the US and Mexico and mass deportations?

An equally dreary picture. First, the US is likely to see the return of state and local anti-immigrant legislation. Beginning around 2006, many states and local communities, especially in the South, began passing laws designed to make life for undocumented immigrants unbearable.The 2012 presidential election and recognition of the ‘Hispanic vote’ largely stopped this legislative trend, but Trump’s election will reinvigorate local efforts to make undocumented immigrants – and, by extension, their US-born children – unwelcome in local communities. The fact that Jeff Sessions, a Republican Senator from Alabama, will play a key role in Trump’s administration only strengthens this possibility.

Second, the US is likely to (continue to) see much more vitriolic public discourse around immigration. Again, this will be a change from trends in recent years. After 2012, many Republicans who had been ‘tough’ on immigration softened their tones. State-level anti-immigrant laws were dismantled, and executive orders eased the fears of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as young children or who had US-born children. Trump’s entry into the election in July 2015 bucked that trend with his declaration that Mexico sent rapists, drug-runners, and criminals to the US and that a ‘beautiful’ wall between Mexico and the US (and paid for by Mexico) was a necessary solution to the ‘problem of immigration. His subsequent campaign only intensified xenophobic claims about immigrants, the crime they brought with them, and the need to deport ‘bad hombres’ and end birthright citizenship. For Trump, making America great again meant taking it back to the 1950s era of mass deportations and less ethnic and racial diversity. Immigration, for him, was a hurdle to being great.

Third, we are likely to see more misinformation about immigration. Trump’s campaign not only sanctioned racist statements about immigrants but also legitimated specious claims about immigration itself. Trump, of course, is not the first politician to make up claims, but he took this practice to a new level. He repeatedly claimed that immigrants commit crimes at greater rates than ‘Americans’, an argument that has been repeatedly refuted by a large body of research.1 Trump, however, ignored that empirical reality and highlighted the actions of a few immigrants to damn them all. Despite no grounding in reality, this linking of immigrants to crime played a central role in Trump’s campaign.

Trump also repeatedly claimed that undocumented immigrants “pour” across the US-Mexico border. Again, there is no empirical basis to this claim. The flow of undocumented Mexican immigrants has been decreasing since 2007, and by 2013, more Americans were moving to Mexico than Mexicans moving to the US Trump’s language about immigrants pouring into the US tapped long-standing xenophobic discourses about a “flood” of immigrants overwhelming the country. By ignoring empirical trends and tapping into such stereotypes, Trump created his own truths, which then took on a life of their own.

Perhaps most damningly for those of us interested in progressive approaches to immigration, Trump transformed what immigration means and is understood to cause, allowing it to proxy for a range of other forces – like neoliberal globalization – shaping people’s lives, especially the lives of white, working-class households. Trump positioned immigrants as causing the losses that large swaths of the US have experienced and, perhaps most frighteningly, as fixing those feelings of marginalization by their absence – making America great again by removing immigrants from it.

Where do we go from here? A key part of picking up the pieces from this election is figuring out how to change public discourse around immigration. Despite what Trump says, immigration is not going anywhere, no matter what kind of walls you build. It is built into local, national, and global economies and into the American social fabric. The question before us is how to find productive ways to talk about and act on the complexity of immigration and its centrality to American life. I have built my career around studying the politics of immigration. At least in the short term, the tone of my research will be much darker.