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Immigration and public opinion: Trump’s mistake

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Today runs very close to March 19, 2003, as the most shameful day to be an American citizen of my lifetime. I’m immensely grateful to all the people at the airport and other protests around the country: to anyone reading involved: thank you.

Today is also a day to grateful for Trump’s inexperience and incompetence. Trump as done and will do many awful things, and a lot of them will be unpopular. Restricting refugee and Muslim immigration, though, was one of the things that could be moderately popular. However, by executing this plan in such a ham-fisted way, our attention has turned not to an abstract ban, but to its actual enforcement, and in particular to the handful of lawful residents caught in limbo at airports around the country.

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Antje Ellermann‘s research on the politics of immigration, in particular her 2009 book States Against Migrants: Deportation in Germany and the United States, is useful in making clear what a tremendous strategic blunder this is. Ellermann’s innovation is to stop treating public opinion about immigration in general terms, and disagregating it. In both of her case studies (Germany an the US), the politics of immigration is far more punitive and pro-deportation when couched in general, broad, sweeping terms; typically, at the moment of legislation. That doesn’t translate to public opinion about implementation, particularly as it relates to specific cases, where public opinion turns far more favorable to the plight of would-be deportees. A reviewer summarizes her findings on this front:

Ellermann repeatedly notes that although public opinion often contributes to the demonization of immigration that legitimizes restrictive immigration legislation at the macro level, even otherwise staunchly anti-immigrant members of the public will seek to exempt “deserving” and “well-integrated” migrants from enforcement efforts.

Trump structured his effort in such a way as to turn the public eye to “deserving” and “well-integrated” migrants almost immediately. At least one of the people detained today (now released) was Hameed Khaled Darweesh, an Iraqi interpreter for the US Army. This is a great opportunity to turn the public against what might have been one of Trump’s most evil and least unpopular initiatives into a political disaster. So far, happily, it appears that opportunity may not been wasted.

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