"Border Wars": A New York Times Kind of Book

Well-sourced reporting and smooth writing — but with a blind spot

By Jerry Kammer on October 14, 2019

There is much to admire in Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, the new book by New York Times reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear. A review in the Times justifiably hails their work as so insightful in its investigative story-telling that it is "essential reading for those searching for the beating heart of the Trump administration."

Border Wars displays the sort of well-sourced reporting and smooth writing that make the Times so valuable to national discourse. The backstory of Trump's fixation on building a border wall is just one of the authors' many vivid tales of the incoherent, tumultuous immigration policy-making in the White House commanded by our impetuous, obsessive, mercurial, erratic president.

Unfortunately, Hirschfeld and Davis also provide ample evidence of the ideological bias and skewed moral sensibility that have long marred Times reporting on immigration. The fundamental problem is that the paper is staffed by reporters and editors steeped in the provincial cosmopolitanism of Manhattan's Upper West Side. In their world, inclusion and diversity are sacred values, and to believe is to see. The result is a moral community unable or simply unwilling to see that there are reasons both respectable and persuasive for wanting to stop illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration.

Although there are some unsavory characters on the restrictionist side of the debate, restrictionism is not fundamentally anti-immigrant. The restrictionists with whom I identify are like those who want to regulate Wall Street in order to make it healthy and well-ordered. In both instances, the idea is to save a powerful institution from its centrifugal tendencies toward destructive excess.

But in the world of immigration enthusiasts, everyone knows in their heart that those who want to limit immigration are really nativists and xenophobes aligned with the KKK. The fundamental task of immigration policy makers is to decide how many immigrants our country should welcome and how to enforce the limits that are established.

Hirschfeld Davis and Shear provide no insight into the background of the current immigration debate. They write blithely that Trump has disrupted "many decades of bipartisan consensus in favor of immigrants and immigration." This simplistic formulation ignores the decades of intense debate that divided both parties. They say nothing, for example, about the turbulent and tortuous five-year gestation of the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

IRCA, as the 1986 bill is known, featured a hard-won compromise, combining a generous amnesty for established illegal immigrants with a promise to stop future waves of illegal immigration by requiring employers to verify that new hires were authorized to work in the United States.

Border Wars says nothing about the strange bedfellows, left-right coalition of business groups, ethnic organizations, and libertarians that wrecked the worksite provisions of the 1986 Act. They show no understanding that the massive growth of illegal immigration provoked the populist anger and frustration that propelled Trump to the White House. Disdaining restrictionists as obstructionists blocking comprehensive immigration reform, they fail to acknowledge that the core restrictionist argument has been — as the maverick bipartisan senatorial team of Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Tester (D-Montana) argued in 2013 — that recent proposals have been structured in a way that guarantees a repeat of IRCA's colossal worksite failure.

Hirschfeld Davis and Shear dismiss all organized restrictionist groups as "hardliners" who "funneled their work to hard-right publications" and right-wing television and radio hosts. Well, as a former reporter now working at the Center for Immigration Studies, I can tell you that I have tried mightily to interest the New York Times in my work documenting the failure of IRCA. But I have met little but frustration at the Times, which has apparently concluded that to open its news or opinion pages to serious consideration of restrictionist concerns would be a capitulation to bigotry.

As Daniel Okrent, the Times' former public editor, wrote in 2004 that when it comes to consideration of social issues, "if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.” Playing it down the middle is a hard-headed principle that once ennobled journalism. But if your religion allows you to abjure it, it relieves you of the burdensome task of considering the possibility that an alien idea has merit.

Back in 2014 I wrote about Hirschfeld Davis's animus toward restrictionists here. In my next post I will have more to say, with some criticism of restrictionists for failing to do more to get us out of the quagmire that was caused by IRCA's failure and exacerbated by Trump's victory in 2016.

Read Part Two