Some fifteen years ago, a white male co-worker and friend in his mid-fifties told me that the next battleground in American politics would be illegal immigration. Republican and very conservative, he argued that a restrictionist immigration policy, to include a border wall and deportation of illegal immigrants, would be the GOP's route to concentrating its political power.
Many years have passed since then, and the political impact of the immigration debate has swung wildly. For several years, the issue favored Democrats, who have marched in lockstep against deporting illegal immigrants who are obeying the criminal law, against a hardened wall across the entire southern border, and with few qualms about sanctuary cities. In a few states, the law has been changed to permit pursuit of a driver's license or to extend in-state college tuition rates to the children of "undocumented" immigrants. (It is not only Democrats who have supported these reforms, especially the latter.)
Republicans, meanwhile, have had difficulty finding one voice on the issue. A minority of individuals from the party less favorable to immigrants has called for deportation. But even these have been on the defensive, to the extent that its 2012 presidential nominee advocated the rather lame "self-deportation," short for "please do us a favor and leave on your own."
"Secure the border first" or "first secure the border" has become a common mantra, but not all Republicans have joined the chorus. And there has been no concerted, unified effort to force cities to relinquish their sanctuary status nor to establish the principle that if only bona-fide residents of a state can receive in-state tuition rates, only bona-fide, legal residents of the country should be extended that break.
With Democrats the pro-immigration policy and Republicans the off-and-on pro- and anti- immigration party, Democrats have gained the clear upper hand on the matter, to the point that the failure of the party in mid-term elections has often been attributed in large measure to the failure of minorities- including hispanics- to vote in off-term elections. However, noting the willingness of hispanics (to a lesser extent, other minorities) to vote in presidential election years, the mainstream media has argued that the Democratic Party has a virtual lock on the presidential race.
No more- and Jamelle Bouie knows why.
How can this be about race when Trump won some Obama voters? There’s an equally easy answer: John McCain indulged racial fears, and Mitt Romney played on racial resentment, but they refused to go further. To borrow from George Wallace, they refused to cry “nigger.” This is important. By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it’s unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente. And Trump shattered it. With his jeremiads against Hispanics and Muslims—with his visions of dystopian cities and radicalized refugees—Trump told white Americans that their fears and anger were justified. And that this fear and anger should drive their politics. Trump forged a politics of white tribalism, and white people embraced it.
McCain and Romney moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. My friend understood that immigration was a simmering issue but merely expected it to be raised to a major issue within a few years. However, it took several years because it was for so long only a minor issue. Hispanics and their liberal friends, well aware of the stakes and finding the debate pertinent to them, turned their ire against Republicans while conservatives found other issues, among them guns, gay rights, taxes, perhaps abortion and the Supreme Court (but I repeat myself), to become exorcised about.
No more, once antagonism and harshness replaced a somewhat vaccilatory appeal. Donald Trump announced his candidacy by declaring
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
From there, it was game on. Democrats and the media engaged him on the issue and Trump kept talking about The Wall. He spoke relatively little about deporting illegal immigrants because the thought- visually imagined- of forcibly removing human beings, including children, was more than their precious consciences could accept. The Wall, however expensive, impractical, and unlikely, would do no such thing and was far more acceptable. (Conservatives may know, even like, an undocumented worker- but are unlikely to know any Mexicans who want to come across the border.)
Donald Trump moved immigration to the forefront of the American debate and it quickly became his signature issue. He won the election. Ascribe that to racial animus (as does Bouie), fear of loss of jobs, or concern about paying "benefits," directly or indirectly, to non-citizens. But opposition to immigration- and not only to illegal immigration- played a major role in Tuesday's election, and without it we would not have a President-elect Trump.