The Nobel Prize Standard

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 12, 2017

The phrase "deeds not words" has long been associated with Alice Paul, suffragette, political activist, and one of the founders of the National Women's Party. The Washington Post, which describes the phrase as Ms. Paul's "battle cry", reports it is "an allusion to Paul's preference for attention-getting protest stunts, such as hurtling rocks at windowpanes, in the name of equal rights."

"Deeds not words" is a common-sense and compelling concept. It is a variant on the phrases "talk is cheap" and "put your money where your mouth is" — what you say doesn't matter, only what you do.

In its recent assessment of President Trump's actions in his first 100 days in office, the Center for Immigration Studies concluded: "Overall, the administration so far has done well. Though there is much yet to be achieved, and in some areas campaign promises have not been met, a significant amount has been done, or at least started down the right path." Most of that assessment analyzes the president's actions. Recent developments have, however, brought into clearer focus the equally important effect of President Trump's immigration rhetoric, even in instances where there was not more significant action from the president to back the rhetoric up.

It goes without saying that Trump's statements on immigration reflect a shift in thinking from the last two administrations, and especially President Obama's. Whereas President Obama used his executive authority (and then some) to provide increasing numbers of benefits to those who had entered illegally, and largely turned a blind eye to those aliens when it came to enforcement, then-candidate and now-President Trump has made strong immigration enforcement a key talking point.

Most famously, Trump has called for the building of a wall on the Southwest border, for which he claimed he could make Mexico pay. While that effort has recently run into (U.S.) funding difficulties, and little if any additional work has been done to improve the barriers that have sporadically dotted the border for years, the president remains insistent that he will complete the wall as promised.

It is important that politicians be held accountable for their promises, and the same is true, if not more so, for the president. The president's statements on immigration, however, have had a power all their own, and should be included in any assessment of his accomplishments.

This was the standard that was applied to President Obama by the Norwegian Nobel Committee when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009, less than nine months after he had taken office. Although the committee asserted that President Obama was receiving the award "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples", in reality he had few efforts at that point to show. He acknowledged this fact in his Nobel lecture, stating: "I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage."

As one critic stated almost six years after the fact: "The prize was thought to be preemptive and encouraging for a leader who had ambitious global plans for scaling down a militaristic American foreign policy." Put another way, in his words on the campaign trail in 2008, and his initial statements as president, Obama had made it clear that he was determined to set the United States on a different path militarily and with respect to foreign relations than his predecessor had, a difference that was considered by international observers as an accomplishment in and of itself.

One specific example is Guantanamo. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention facility. In his fourth executive order, signed two days after he entered the White House, he reiterated this call. The U.S. policy of detaining terrorist suspects at the base had, by 2008, become a point of conflict between the United States and its allies. While the detention facility remains open, this executive order and President Obama's statements as a candidate about closing Guantanamo still had a tangible effect on our international relations.

Similarly, President Trump's immigration rhetoric alone has had an effect on immigration enforcement. As CNN reported Wednesday:

In April, there were 11,129 total apprehensions at the Southwest border. That is the lowest in 17 years of available CBP data, the third straight month that apprehensions hit historic lows. Prior to the Trump administration, the lowest monthly total going back to 2000 was in December 2011, when 18,983 apprehensions were recorded at the southern border.

That article further notes:

The drops in February and March defied 17 years of CBP trends — apprehensions had not decreased in those two months of the year since 2000. The month of April, on the other hand, has seen different trends over the years, sometimes increasing and sometimes dropping.

While any immigration expert can tell you that there are a number of variables that affect the border flow, it is impossible to deny that the main factor in this massive decrease in the number of aliens apprehended entering the United States illegally is the president's rhetoric.

Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind "Dilbert", who writes extensively in his blog about persuasion theory, has argued:

President Trump has already built a border wall with Mexico out of nothing but persuasion. Immigration from Mexico is down more than 50% just from Trump's persuasion alone. I suppose we will get something like a physical wall someday too. But for now, Trump's Wall of Persuasion is doing a lot of work.

Adams is a Trump supporter, but even the president's detractors seem to agree. Two weeks ago, I wrote about federal District Judge William Orrick's order in County of Santa Clara v. Trump, wherein Judge Orrick granted the motions of the County of Santa Clara and the City and County of San Francisco to enjoin section 9(a) of Executive Order 13768 (E.O. 13768), "Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States". In his decision, Judge Orrick stated:

Although the Government now takes the position that the Order carries no legal force, in its public statements and through its actions it has repeatedly indicated its intent to enforce the Order. The Executive Order was passed on January 27, 2017. Although the defunding provision has not yet been enforced against any jurisdiction, governmental leaders have made numerous statements reaffirming the Government's intent to enforce the Order and to use the threat of withholding federal funds as a tool to coerce states and local jurisdictions to change their policies. On February 5, 2017, after signing the Executive Order, President Trump confirmed that he was willing and able to use "defunding" as a "weapon" so that sanctuary cities would change their policies. See (Tr. of Feb. 5, 2017 Bill O'Reilly Interview with President Donald J. Trump) at 4 ("I don't want to defund anybody. I want to give them the money they need to properly operate as a city or a state. If they're going to have sanctuary cities, we may have to do that. Certainly that would be a weapon.").

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has confirmed that the Government intends to enforce the order, stating that the President intended to ensure that "counties and other institutions that remain sanctuary cities don't get federal government funding in compliance with the executive order." Harris Decl. Ex. C at 4-5. In the same briefing, Spicer cited favorably the actions of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez who, one day after the Executive Order, instructed his Interim Director of Corrections to "honor all immigration detainer requests" "[i]n light of the Executive Order." Lauding Miami-Dade's actions, Spicer noted that Miami-Dade "understand[s] the importance of this order" and encouraged other jurisdictions to follow its lead. (Citations omitted; emphasis added.)

The passage is notable because, as highlighted, Judge Orrick references therein numerous statements made by the president and his administration, and the effect that rhetoric had on the decision of Mayor Giménez to comply with immigration detainers, even though the court implicitly found that Giménez' decision was not otherwise required by law. In fact, Judge Orrick's order (which he admits "does nothing more than implement the effect of the Government's ... interpretation of the [Executive] Order") appears intended solely to blunt the effect of the president's otherwise effective rhetoric.

Similarly, as my colleague Kausha Luna has detailed, the president's immigration statements have had a profound effect south of the border, including on governments that have been hostile to the president.

Most notably, in her blogpost "Reactions to Trump's First 100 Days from South of the Border", Luna details the steps that the Mexican government has taken since the inauguration to ensure that deportees to the country can be reintegrated. At the same time, as she notes, however, Mexico's National Institute for Migration has recognized that "deportation of Mexicans is not new, it is not an issue that emerged with the Donald Trump presidency, the immigration policy of the United States has always been the same." Even though the Mexican government knows that not much has actually changed by law since Trump took office, the government must still grapple with the president's rhetoric.

The president's tough talk on immigration must soon be backed up by more concrete action, if he wants to see the number of border crossers remain low, and to get a handle on the population of illegal aliens in the United States. The president's rhetoric has been effective so far, however, and he should get some credit for that.