Trump class #4: Immigration; The Travel Ban Executive Order

Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration (Dec. 7, 2015)

Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreigner Terrorist Entry into the United States, Jan. 27, 2017

Washington v. Trump, Ninth Circuit

Aziz v. Trump, Eastern District of Virginia

Executive Order: Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States (2), March 6, 2017

Sarsour v. Trump, Eastern District of Virginia

Borjas, The Immigration Debate We Need, New York Times, Feb. 27, 2017

Higham, Strangers in the Land, chs. 3-4 (2011)

Adida et al.., Muslims in France: Identifying a Discriminatory Equilibrium, Journal of Population Economics, 27, 1039 (2014)

Many in the class seemed to think, and I agree, that the legal case against the travel ban was not strong. Why have so many courts ruled against the Trump administration? A few colorful hypotheses—that the judges are asserting their independence, that they loathe Trump and everything he stands for, that they think the executive orders are not really driven by security concerns. Or perhaps that the security concerns advanced publicly by the Trump administration are not the real security concerns that motivate them?

We can think of several types of concerns behind a travel ban. (1) The conventional, and obviously legitimate, worry that some particular group poses an immediate security threat—that they, or some non-trivial portion of them—enter the country with the intention of doing harm. (2) The more speculative worry that, even if they enter with benign motives, they will in the near future become radicalized and take up arms, or radicalize Americans, or some such thing. (3) The much more speculative worry that they will stay in the country, legally or not, and reproduce, producing an unassimilated minority group that eventually generates low-level but persistent serious social and security problems as in France (see the Adida et al. paper). (4) An entirely different concern—that they will push down wages and drain social services. (5) Various symbolic or cultural harms or racial harms—that they will spread illiberal ideas, or dilute the racial stock, or some such thing.

I suspect that Trump or some combination of advisers are possibility worried about (1) and (2), but are much more concerned about (3), (4), or (5). Some of Bannon’s and Trump’s statements can be interpreted as reflecting the latter group of concerns. But an executive action to block entry based on public rationales (3), (4), and (5), and probably (2) as well, would provoke a very strong political backlash, and would be rejected by the courts as well. Hence the emphasis on (1) in the executive orders themselves and related statements. But the judges don’t believe them.

Could (2), (3), (4), or (5) be legitimate justifications for restricting immigration? What if the administration had admitted these motives? Or persuaded Congress to endorse them and incorporate them into a statute? But Congress never would. The “establishment” would have none of it, despite (or because of) the long history of exclusion based on just these reasons in the United States. But why not, exactly? This is a bridge too far in current conditions, but it is the bridge on which many of Trumps’ supporters congregate.