Originally Published in The New Yorker.
By Eric Lach
February 6, 2019
In late December, responding to pressure from anti-immigrant pundits, President Trump shut down the government in an attempt to extract billions of dollars from Congress for a wall on the country’s southern border. For more than a month, hundreds of thousands of federal employees went without paychecks, and many federal agencies stopped working or took increasingly desperate measures to keep the lights on. Trump’s poll numbers slid, and members of his party showed impatience. Late last month, after a failed prime-time appeal for the wall from the Oval Office, Trump finally relented, signing a bill to reopen the government, until February 15th. But he still wants his wall, and the government could shut down again if a long-term funding agreement can’t be reached. On Tuesday night, during the State of the Union—a speech that was delayed a week because of the shutdown—Trump made another prime-time pitch.
During the past two years, Trump has learned to modulate his anti-immigrant rhetoric in official settings—to dress it up in the bureaucratic language of federal policy. But, on Tuesday, he offered unfiltered immigrant scapegoating, laying practically all the sins of the country at immigrants’ feet. “Working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration,” Trump declared. “Reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.” Insecure jobs, stagnant wages, underfunded schools and safety-net programs, an embarrassing health-care system, crime rates—immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, are responsible for none of these problems. But here was the President of the United States telling those people willing to hear it that they were. “Year after year,” Trump said, “countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.” This is untrue. There is no undocumented-immigrant murder wave.
Trump can dress up his demand for a wall all he wants. On Tuesday he also spoke of a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” and about a “common-sense proposal.” But Trump’s border wall wasn’t born as a common-sense proposal; it was campaign-rally red meat. It was an imagined monument to anti-immigrant sentiment, telling people outside the U.S. to stay out. Trump’s shutdown was fomented not by any “crisis” on the actual border but by a political crisis involving Trump’s base, which had taken Trump at his word about the wall and what it would be. No amount of fear-mongering should distract from that.