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Trump—yes, Trump—may be the one to finally deliver on comprehensive immigration reform

People participate in a protest march calling for human rights and dignity for immigrants
Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
There are better ways.
  • Ana Campoy
By Ana Campoy

Deputy editor, global finance and economics

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After repeatedly bashing undocumented immigrants on the campaign trail and deporting hundreds of them in his first weeks in office, US president Donald Trump is floating a new approach. He now wants a compromise on immigration policy, a goal that eluded both his Democrat and Republican predecessors.

Trump has provided few details on how to achieve this, other than to say that he favors a merit-based system. But he has indicated he is now open to granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, despite previously promising to expel them.

This may seem totally out of character for someone who built his political career by fanning anti-immigrant sentiment. Indeed, it’s anyone’s guess whether he will follow through on this new notion, or if it will vanish from the Trumpian agenda as quickly as it appeared.

Still, Trump may represent the best chance of passing immigration reform that the US has had in years.

Are we talking about the same Donald Trump?

Yes, at first glance, he’s an extremely unlikely candidate for the task of reaching a compromise on this (or really any) issue. But consider what he brings to the table on immigration.

He obviously knows how to talk to the people most against immigration reform, namely conservative Americans scared that foreigners are changing their country for the worse. And the trust he gained with these voters proved fairly unshakable, over the course of a long race filled with scandal and controversy.

If immigrant-friendly Republicans and Democrats can get past Trump’s “bad hombre” rhetoric and his insistence on building a southern US border wall, they may find that his bombastic tack, steered in a slightly new direction, is precisely the way to convince the 46% of Americans who, according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, view immigrants as a threat to American customs and values.

It might not even take much to extract their support for an overhaul of the immigration system. If there’s something that virtually all Americans agree on, it’s that the current system does not work.

Donald Trump, master psychologist

Trump seems to recognize that the mind deals in vivid examples, which is why he is far more likely in his speeches to talk about the murder of a San Francisco woman by an undocumented immigrant than to offer up statistics on immigrant-perpetrated crime. Of course, the statistics would ultimately disprove the broader point he’s trying to make, that immigrants are fueling a national crime wave, but that’s not the only reason he avoids dwelling on numbers.

“Our minds were never wired to deal with abstract conceptions of threat,” explains Steven Neuberg, a psychology professor at Arizona State University.

Instead, our brains often rely on gross shortcuts to determine what’s dangerous—and that can come down to processing readily apparent factors such as race, gender, and language. (Neuberg points out that this reaction is natural for people of all political leanings; calls to impeach the president because of his attacks on the press come from the same place as calls to build a wall to stop immigrants from taking American jobs.)

And the mind errs on the side of caution, because mistakenly perceiving an non-existent threat is usually not as costly as missing a real threat.

Overcoming the fear

The type of anxiety that contributes to rabid anti-immigrant sentiment is not assuaged by facts and figures, or by lecturing—i.e. the primary strategies so far employed by proponents of more pathways to citizenship.

The way to get people to recalibrate their threat-detection systems is by making them feel less vulnerable, or by showing them that what they fear is less threatening, says Neuberg. While Trump has yet do much of the latter, he’s rapidly moved to address the former.

During his Feb. 27 speech to Congress, Trump promised he will soon start to erect his proposed reinforcements of the southern US border. Whether it’s the 55-foot-high concrete wall he touted during the campaign, or mere fencing, as he later suggested, just the idea of having a protective barrier will go a long way toward placating fears about undocumented immigrants. Trump’s raids to deport the “bad hombres,” as he’s referred to them, are another example of how he’s trying to quell immigrant-induced anxiety.

Speaking the language

How we frame our ideas has a meaningful impact on how they’re received.

2015 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that political divides are difficult to close in part because debaters on either side of the issue fail to account for the difference in moral values held by those on the other side.

Psychologists have boiled down the values likely to be endorsed by liberals and conservatives to a list, as one of the study’s authors, Robb Willer, explained in a 2016 Ted Talk.

CareRespect to authority

The study found that using each group’s values to reframe ideas coming from the opposite side helped to sway people’s minds. For example, conservatives were more likely to support environmental protections if they were told the purpose was to maintain the purity of forests and water, instead of avoiding their destruction. Liberals, in turn, were more open to high spending in the military when it was framed as an institution that reduces poverty and inequality than when it was presented as one that promotes unity and the country’s greatness.

During his address to Congress, Trump, commenting on immigration, drew heavily from the concepts on the right-hand portion of the list, invoking the values of sanctity, loyalty, patriotism, and authority. Here’s one example:

“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: To improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.”

He spoke specifically of restoring the “integrity and the rule of law at our border” and ending “an environment of lawless chaos,” and argued that ”those given a high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values.”

Whether by design or not, that’s rhetoric destined to resonate strongly with conservatives.

Shifting the conversation

Trump’s heretofore harshness on immigration—in both his rhetoric and his policies—have earned him the trust of immigration reform’s most recalcitrant opponents. That has bought him some space to move the conversation beyond the gridlock it’s been stuck in for years. Here’s Trump speaking at the joint session of Congress:

“According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs American taxpayers many billions of dollars a year. Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits. It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class. And they will do it quickly, and they will be very, very happy, indeed.”

The idea of a merit-based immigration system, to set skill parameters that foreigners must meet in order to come to the US, has mostly fallen by the wayside of the immigration debate. It was crowded out by more basic arguments over whether immigrants are welcome or not to begin with—but Trump is clearly attempting to bring the idea back into the fold now.

Of course, the president’s mixed messages on immigration run the risk of alienating both his base and his opponents. But assuming he makes a serious attempt to build compromise between the two, he has a good shot at getting his base to a place of agreement. Will his opponents be game to go along?

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