The 'Keys to the Kingdom': Interest Groups, Ideologues, and Immigration Policy.

AuthorRisley, Amy


This article seeks to explain why the Trump administration enacted its punitive family separation policy. I argue that restrictionist interest groups bear some responsibility. For years, anti-immigration hardliners had argued that unauthorized immigrants from Central America were "invading" the country, exploiting "loopholes" in asylum law, and "disappearing" into the interior of the country thanks to "catch-and-release" and child-protection policies. Racist nativist and classist ideas permeated these discourses. The ideologues behind Trump's immigration policies deployed similar discourses and translated them into dangerous policies that effectively ended asylum at the southern border.


The Trump administration forcibly separated more than 5,000 immigrant children from their parents and caregivers without viable plans for reunification (Jordan 2021). The American Academy of Pediatrics considered the policy to be "government-sanctioned child abuse" (Soboroff 2020, 246). According to Physicians for Human Rights, the separations met the criteria for torture, defined as an intentional act causing severe physical or mental suffering for the purpose of coercion or punishment and carried out by state officials (or with their consent). The policy was also an integral part of the administration's systematic efforts to criminalize and block asylum seekers, especially those arriving from Central America. It targeted families lawfully presenting themselves at a port of entry, coerced parents into relinquishing their claims, and forced separated children, recategorized as unaccompanied, to navigate their immigration proceedings alone. According to the White House (2019a), the country's broken asylum system was overwhelmed with meritless applications. The administration was willing to violate both US and international law to dismantle it.

What explains the adoption of such punitive measures? A cursory analysis would conclude that high numbers of new arrivals--a so-called border surge--prompted officials wanting to appear tough on immigration to enact a policy of deterrence. Separations were, in fact, designed to deter asylum seekers and other immigrants. But the story does not end there. Simplistic deterrence-based explanations overlook decades of right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric and action. The vast majority of Trump's immigration policies can be traced to ideas that were circulating within that space for years. This article offers the first in-depth, scholarly analysis of the policies' origins.

I argue that the administrations ideologues are responsible for the family separations policy--in all of its "chaos and cruelty"--and for the human rights violations it entailed (Committee on the Judiciary 2020, 13). Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, and other immigration hardliners were the most stalwart proponents of zero tolerance, the policy of prosecuting all adults apprehended for illegal entry along with separation. They were the architects of the policy, but its foundation had been built by restrictionist interest groups. Members of these groups had long influenced the political discourse and policy ambitions of the individuals destined to join the administration. They enjoyed unprecedented access during the campaign, the transitional period following the election, and multiple phases of policymaking. Some even assumed positions in the administration and became directly involved in formulating policies. Stated briefly, extremists previously dismissed as fringe political actors used their newfound authoritative power in government to enact extreme measures.

Theoretical Perspectives

My goal here is not to undertake a comprehensive review of the vast literature on contemporary US immigration policy. Instead, I offer two main critiques of the current state of the scholarly debate. First, existing studies have not yet explained the origins of family separations: they have emphasized the policy's consequences rather than its causes. Separations carried out in detention are correlated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and toxic stress. Researchers posit that sudden, chaotic, and/or prolonged separations--and the uncertainty surrounding their parents'fate--heighten the adverse effects on children (Muniz de la Pena et al. 2019, Wood 2018). Separation from parents is one of the most significant traumas a child can experience. It is therefore not surprising that scholars trained in psychology, pediatrics, and related fields have analyzed the policy's impact. In contrast, political scientists have been conspicuously absent from the discussion. I seek to fill this gap by asking several quintessentially political questions: who made the policy decision to enact separations and in whose interest? Why were separations at the border relatively infrequent during the Obama years and widespread under Trump despite similarly high rates of arrivals from Northern Triangle countries?

A related shortcoming characterizes the existing literature: few studies have analyzed the origins of Trump's other punitive immigration policies. Chacon (2017) and Wadhia (2019) provide helpful assessments of the ad ministrations earliest enforcement priorities and executive orders, including the controversial travel bans and plans for expedited removals and expanded detention. Chacon (2017, 245) argues that the government was essentially doubling down on the restrictive approaches enacted by their predecessors. Scholars should build on this work and explain both the continuity and change we observe in immigration policy.

Thankfully, the interdisciplinary scholarship on migration provides a wealth of conceptual tools that have deepened our understanding of discriminatory attitudes toward immigrants of color and ethnic and cultural others in the United States. Critical discourse analyses discuss criminalizing and stigmatizing representations of Latinx and Latin American people (Garcia Hernandez 2011). The Latino threat narrative, which constructs these groups as an invading force, has long been disseminated by the media (Chavez 2013). Scholars who draw from critical race theory have developed the concept of racist nativism: the native person's right to dominance is justified by assigning values to real or imagined differences; natives are perceived to be white, while non-natives are perceived to be people of color (Perez Huber et. al. 2008). Identity conflicts such as these can shape policy debates (Aranda et al. 2014, Enchautegui & Menjivar 2015, McDowell & Wonders 2009). Constructivists likewise argue that ideas--particularly norms and principled ideas--have the power to influence policy (e.g., Khagram et al. 2002). The present study builds on this work by underscoring the importance of ideational and discursive variables. However, I focus more intently on the carriers of ideas--in this case, key government officials and members of interest groups--and their roles in policymaking. Existing work tends to look at broader public opinions, cultural trends, and/or media representations. This study, in contrast, emphasizes elite discourses shaped by nativism, racist nativism, and classism.

Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and class became more overt during the Trump years. Insults were tweeted out with regularity. "Shithole" countries were identified. Representations of immigrants revealed animosity toward Latin Americans and immigrants of color more generally. Central Americans were uniformly categorized as economic migrants. Members of the administration constructed immigrants as threats to public safety and the US way of life understood in economic, cultural, ethnic, and racial terms. They applied these characterizations to a broad swath of people, including those who were traveling to the United States in so-called caravans, arriving at the border in "surges," and residing in the country's interior. Racist, nativist, and class-based discourses were thus deployed at the highest levels of government. Yet similar ideas had long been circulating within restrictionist interest groups. Their tough talk on immigration shaped policy. In advancing this argument, I build on the political science literature on pressure groups and lobbying (e.g., Berry 1997, Gelb & Palley 1996).

To trace these relationships, I consulted hundreds of documents that American Oversight obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Many of these resources are internal communications referencing immigration issues and draft policies; some are emails showing external communications between administration officials and members of restrictionist groups. Additionally, I analyzed more than 150 government documents published on the White House and Homeland Security Immigration websites. These included executive orders and proclamations, fact sheets, press releases, and transcripts of speeches and events. I also performed content analysis of articles, reports, blog postings, and press releases published by the most important interest groups.

The findings of this research are organized as follows. I first discuss the origins and motivations of the restrictionist interest groups. I then show how their ideas, discourses, and concrete proposals influenced individuals who would eventually join the Trump administration and become the chief architects of punitive policies, including zero tolerance, family separation, and the broader assault on asylum. The administrations embrace of the groups' proposals was without precedent in recent history.

"How Can We Preserve America?"

A well-resourced network of restrictionist groups has become a fixture of contemporary American politics. Numerous groups populate this terrain, but I focus predominantly on the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). FAIR seeks dramatic reductions to legal immigration, opposes birthright citizenship, and fights...

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