No crossing.

Photographer: Philippe Huguen/Getty Images

Trump's Immigration Attack Runs Through Brussels

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Here we go again.

Speaking on NBC's Today show shortly after deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels, Donald Trump said the U.S. should "close up our borders until we figure out what's going on."

The Trumpian rhetoric is now familiar: His proposal is both shockingly aggressive -- it was accompanied by another call to "expand" American law to permit the torture of terrorism suspects -- and intentionally, impossibly vague. Across the muddy terrain of statecraft in an age of stateless terrorism, "figure out what's going on" is not exactly a sure marker.

Yet as a warning to Hillary Clinton of what awaits her in a general election, Trump's message couldn't have been clearer. Earlier this month, Clinton allowed herself to be pushed into a position on border security that she can't sustain in the general election. With Trump poised to strike, she will have to backpedal.

At a debate in Miami, Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos, who is an open advocate for undocumented immigrants, asked Clinton to "promise tonight that you won't deport children, children who are already here?"

Ramos was talking about the unaccompanied minors who have fled violence and poverty in Central America and sought asylum in the overburdened immigration courts of the U.S.

In 2014, Clinton had told CNN that such children “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are, because there are concerns about whether all of them should be sent back.”

Last August, Clinton said, “Specifically with respect to children on the border, if you remember, we had an emergency, and it was very important to send a message to families in Central America: Do not let your children take this very dangerous journey.”

But standing on stage this month, squeezed between Bernie Sanders relentlessly pushing her from the left, and Ramos demanding a better life for kids trapped by brutal gang violence, Clinton caved.

"I will not deport children," she said. "I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members, either, Jorge."

Terrorists, of course, have family members, too, as Trump will no doubt remind us. And an underground population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. will provide him with a useful counterpoint to terrorist cells in Europe.  

Presuming she wins the Democratic nomination, Clinton will rely on Hispanic votes to power her to victory in the fall in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and other key states. Immigration advocacy groups are already working to register Hispanic voters and turn them out for whichever Democrat opposes Trump.

But Trump has a bankable asset of his own: Fear. "I mean, there’s tremendous hatred," he told the Washington Post editorial board Monday. "Even the, even the guy they caught in Paris. He was being hid out by other Muslims, and everybody is after him, and he’s living right next to where he grew up. There’s a serious, serious problem with the Muslims and it’s got to be addressed."

Many Americans fear terrorism, and their relatively tolerant views on immigration can change instantly on a tide of bad news. In his Post interview, Trump promptly pivoted from Europe to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

You saw what two people did – the woman and the man, whether she radicalized him or [inaudible] – but you saw what two people did, and I just don’t think we can take people in when we have no idea who they are, where they come from. There’s no documents, there’s no paper, and we have ISIS looming over our head, and we have tremendous destruction.

When Trump frames the argument, ISIS will be looming not just over our heads but on our border. The dangerous people without paper, without documents -- "when we have no idea who they are, where they come from" -- will be the children, many of them male teens, many already untraceable, who Clinton just vowed not to deport.

Since 2011, Obama administration policy essentially has been to deport only criminals and those caught crossing the border. It's a remarkably lenient policy toward illegal immigration, accommodating the reality that millions of undocumented immigrants have been settled in the U.S. for a decade or more and that it would be both cruel and counterproductive to uproot them.

When the administration moved in January to deport some recent arrivals, however, immigration advocates objected. Their opposition is neither legally nor politically sustainable. Neither is Clinton's promise to Ramos; to fend off Trump's furious assault she will need to backtrack, realigning her position more closely with Obama's. Otherwise, her stand represents an open invitation to the desperate youth of Central America.

There is no joy in denying them, and the consequences will be grim. The Guardian reported in October on the fate of dozens of Central American immigrants who had been deported back home. They were murdered soon after their returns.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net