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President-elect Donald Trump and his Fear of ‘the Other’

The Dahrendorf Forum recently invited members of our extended network of academics and policy-makers to submit blogs in which they reflect on the implications of a Trump presidency on Europe and the wider world. Olga R. Gulina, Founder & CEO of RUSMPI – Institute on Migration Policy, is the second of our guest bloggers in this series.

‘The U.S. is a nation of immigrants’ – Donald Trump has been accused of breaking with this strong held conviction. Yet, the U.S. has a long history of mistreating migrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, Asian countries and Mexico. Donald Trump continued this tradition when heralding that a wall would be built to secure the border between Mexico and the U.S. But contrary to popular belief this cannot be regarded as a new departure in U.S. migration policy.

Over decades U.S. lawmakers and politicians consistently discriminated against citizens of certain countries and continents. The Page Act of 1875 prevented the immigration of anyone from ‘China, Japan, or any Oriental country’. The immigration law of 1924 aimed at limiting settlement of South-Eastern Europeans and at increasing quotas for West Europeans.

A Short History of Mistreating Migrants

Mexican migration is deeply rooted in American history. Most Mexican immigrants came to the USA legally following bilateral agreements under the Bracero Program (1917-1964). The burdens of World War II and the requirements of an industrial boom had led to a demand for workers, especially during and after the world wars. The shortage of labor was especially serious in the southern states’ agricultural sector. In 1926, members of the Californian Chamber of Commerce wrote to the U.S. Congress: ‘…We, gentlemen, are just as anxious as you are not to build the civilization of California or any other western district upon a Mexican foundation. We take him because there is nothing else available. We have gone east, west, north, and south and he is the only man-power available to us.’ (Martin 2003) The Farm Bureau asserted that ‘California’s specialized agriculture [requires] a kind of labor able to meet the requirements of hard, stoop, hand labor, and to work under the sometimes less advantageous conditions of heat, sun, dust, winds, and isolation.’

From 1942-1964 more than 5,000,000 so-called ‘Braceros’ were distributed across 24 states in the USA. Manual workers, earning only 30 cents per hour and no more than 3 USD per day, workers under the Bracero Program were discriminated for payments and work. However, they were willing to take hard and dirty jobs at wages scorned by Americans. In the early 1960s the Bracero Program came under attack from all sides and was finally discontinued. Newly elected President Kennedy stated that ‘Braceros’ were ‘adversely affecting the wages, working conditions, and employment opportunities of our own agricultural workers.’ (Calavita 2010)

Trump’s approach to migration

During his electoral campaign, Donald Trump laid out a plan to forcibly deport millions of undocumented immigrant workers currently living in the U.S. In a ten-point plan he lays out the groundwork of his immigration policy to come, calling to build a wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and an absolute bar on granting entry to any immigrant with a criminal record. To enforce the mass round-up of millions of undocumented workers, Trump proposes a drastic expansion of police and immigration agencies with ‘a new special deportation task force’. Trump also called for immediately canceling the DACA program, which has allowed several millions of young undocumented people raised in the United States to remain in the U.S. on a temporary basis.

But with his attempt of pitting the working class against migrants, claiming ‘to serve the best interests of America and its workers’, he is in good company. While his unwavering support for harsh immigration enforcement is a departure in terms of its magnitude, it is not qualitatively different in its exclusive narrative to certain groups of migrants. And his promise to regain control of a chaotic and uncontrolled immigration system that depicts a porous border and a large illegal immigrant population resonates on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Trump in the U.S., European right-wing parties ‘fear the other’. The Brexit campaign successfully tapped into the resentment of those feeling marginalized by migration.

A Strategic Mistake in the Making

However, the attack on immigrants is a strategic mistake. Migrants are an essential element of the social fabric of the U.S., facilitating innovation, adaptiveness to global challenges and community resilience. In the words of John F. Kennedy the exclusion and devaluation of certain groups of immigrants is tantamount to racism (Kennedy 1959).

Closing down legal forms of cross-border migration will cost the taxpayers about 113 billion USD (FAIR 2013). Furthermore, in March 2013 the Center for American Progress presented its study according to which the conferral of the legal status on irregular aliens residing in the country was bound to bring additional 1.4 billion USD into the U.S. budget over the next ten years (Report 2013).

There is little hope that Trump’s transition team will be able to make him reconsider his migration agenda. But Trump is not a lone wolf. He will not be able to take decisions without consulting a team of advisers and a bureaucracy that continues to wield power and experience. Hence there is hope that while his populist agenda has gained a lot of attention, in practice it will be dampened down by the realities of policy making.

About the author: Olga R. Gulina is Founder & CEO of RUSMPI – Institute on Migration Policy. She holds a PhD in Migration Law (2010, University of Potsdam, Germany), a PhD in Constitutional Law (2002, Bashkir State University, Russia), a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Human Rights Law (2005, Helsinki Human Rights Foundation, Poland), and a Diploma in Law (Law Institute of Bashkir State University, Russia, 1999).

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.