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In ‘Zero Tolerance,’ ‘Frontline’ reviews Trump’s anti-immigrant strategy

The great “Frontline” series of PBS will premiere a new film tonight, titled “Zero Tolerance,” about how Donald Trump used the threat of immigrants as a threat to the United States as one of the centerpieces of his 2016 campaign, and the first year of his presidency.

“Zero Tolerance” airs at 9 tonight (Oct. 22) on KTCA channel 2 in the Twin Cities. It’s a one-hour film.

The Trump presidency has been such a whirlwind of controversy, currently dominated by impeachment, and Trump’s use of leverage to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s family, and the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria, and, and, and, and … that until I previewed  “Zero Tolerance,” I had to some degree forgotten how much the first few months of Trump in office was about the border, the border, the border — which led to family separation horrors that even some border enforcement hardliners found hard to stomach. But this film brings it right back.

Likewise the lineup of Trump underlings who were in the thick of those early days and especially those border-obsessed days — Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Jeff Sessions – seem like figures from a distant past (though Miller is still in the administration). Even harder to recall (but this film will remind you) was the not-so-distant past when top Republican presidential candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others – seemed to want to steer the GOP to a much more welcoming attitude toward immigration across the southern border. (And don’t forget the initial effort to put a complete stop to new arrivals, by plane, from the Mideast, that caused a whole bunch of liberal lawyers, and non-lawyers, to rush to airports in the northeast where arrivals from Middle Eastern countries were all of a sudden not being allowed to proceed with what had been for years the normal process for seeking a stay in our country.)

It’s not the greatest “Frontline” ever, because the series is often so great. But my own reaction, more than the horror that I felt at the time, was that I couldn’t believe how recent all this was but how long ago it seemed, back to a time when the big names and faces of the new administration were the likes of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions.

The film strongly suggests that, somewhat under Bannon’s influence, Trump used the immigrant-and-refugee-bashing routine to separate himself from the field from the day he rode down the escalator in New York to declare his candidacy and on into the first year.

The film reminds us that even before Trump, Bannon and some of the other xenophobes had used fear of brown-skinned immigrants and refugees to take over the GOP, starting with the 2014 ouster of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary by the previously unknown Dave Brat, demonstrating that you could gather a mob on the right by demagoguing the immigration issue.

Before that happened, according to the film, even Sean Hannity was “evolving,” as the saying goes, toward a more tolerant attitude on immigration. Then came Trump, and he rode the immigration issue, perhaps more than any other, to the nomination and the presidency and that wild first year, during which Hannity and much of the rest of the Fox crowd rediscovered their anti roots.

Bannon, who is seldom mentioned anymore, is on camera in the film saying the first Trump year could be the year that turns the tide against refugees and immigrants. But, Bannon said in the film, “we gotta start with the muzzle velocity” — meaning constant fire on the issue. Build the wall. Deport. Prosecute. Put ’em in cages. The travel ban. And keep the base revved up about the threat these (almost entirely) nonwhite newcomers pose.

In some sense, this turns into a story about the failure of Trump and the hardliners to implement all their plans. Bannon, Gorka, and Sessions are no longer in the picture. Not much wall has been built. It remains to be seen how much Trump will return to the old wall-building themes, assuming he is a candidate in 2020, and it remains to be seen if he can make it work again. But “Zero Tolerance” is a good reminder of the not-very-distant past when these themes played a large role in the election of Donald Trump.

Comments (46)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 10/22/2019 - 10:28 am.

    Setting aside the race issue, as if that is the only reason to have a discussion about immigration, I would like to challenge the Left: Are there any limits?

    Eternal growth is like a religious dogma in America, requiring similar faith. The question is, if 60,000 people a month are coming to the southern border despite Trump’s hard line, how many show up if we send the message that anyone is welcome?

    We live in a world of 7.4 billion people. The one and only thing that allows for that capacity is fossil fuel. Are we to continue to grow America’s population infinitely as if fossil fuel is infinite?

    Meanwhile we have drug addiction, mental illness, income inequality, homelessness and suicide epidemics here in America among the citizenry, which we are doing what about? Many pollinators and birds are on the verge of extinction. The waters and the land and our bodies are systemically polluted. How is adding tens of millions of more people, at the same time automation and Artificial Intelligence are eating away at more and more jobs, going to improve the illness and pollution here?

    Ed Abbey said growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. America left and right has a cancerous ideology and is in denial about it.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/22/2019 - 10:51 am.

      You’re mixing all sorts of numbers.
      First of all, 700,000 immigrants a year (assuming that your rate is steady) is about 5% of our population. I think that we could absorb that — many of those immigrants would be productive workers doing work that present citizens won’t.
      Then you talk about environmental factors and species extinction, be simply relocating people doesn’t necessarily change these factors.
      As for the necessity of fossil fuels, that may be true in the immediate future, but certainly not in the long run, and this doesn’t take into account increases in efficiency. Increased auto efficiency and shift to electric power by itself will reduce the demand for fossil fuels.
      The claim that mechanization and automation has been around for a couple of centuries now, starting in the UK. It might eventually be true, but history says that eventually new jobs are created to replace the old ones.
      As for mental health problems, we are underspending spectacularly. We could do a lot of research with the cost of one nonfunctional F-35.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 10/22/2019 - 01:05 pm.

        Let in those 700,000 a year, and then watch it become about 7,000,000+ in short order.

        Humans are burning about 85 million barrels of oil a day. In America, we burned about 1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in 2018. Last year we burned 687 million short tons of coal. Belief that we are going to switch to renewables with no real disruption is akin to faith in Jesus return, to extend my simile.

        As for new jobs ever created, the unemployment rate is said to be at record lows, yet the labor participation rate is hovering around 60%, and there are less people working relative to population than in 1982. Tens of millions are under employed. Belief that the jobs market is fine is more of that faith in what is demonstrably false.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/22/2019 - 11:10 am.

      Who are you including in “the Left” (with a capital “L,” as if all of those to your left are in some sort of league against your position?

      Be that as it may, I agree, up to a point. Truly open borders (I know of no national politician from either party currently advocating that policy, but for the moment, I’ll let that slide) and the addition of many thousands of immigrants per month strike me as unsustainable. Too bad the issue of race is – in practical and ethical terms – not as easily set aside as you apparently would like. The current administration and its supporters on this issue are both xenophobic AND racist, and most who speak publicly don’t bother to make a distinction, empty rhetoric from the racist-in-chief notwithstanding.

      On a global scale, continued population growth is also unsustainable, and even more important than immigration policies. What’s your position on sexuality? Birth control and abortion? It’s not just the finite supply of fossil fuels that makes this unsustainable – it’s primarily the pressure of ongoing human fertility, often culturally and religiously endorsed.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/22/2019 - 12:04 pm.

        One demographic trend that has generally proven true:
        As socioeconomic status increases, infant mortality drops and so does family size.
        At least to an extent population size is therefore self limiting.

        • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/22/2019 - 10:42 pm.

          But, as these pages tell us every day, only 1% have “the status”. The other 99% continue to overpopulate and kill the planet.

        • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 10/23/2019 - 08:38 am.

          The population of America and Europe where those socioeconomic trends are evident, is about a billion, 1/7th or 14% of global population. But we consume about 40-45% of global resources. There are not resources anything like enough, for 7.4 billion to become wealthy enough to trend the way you suggest.

          More like, in our hubris, those resources are becoming ever more stretched and thin, which means less to go around for everyone, which likely means similar demographic trends globally, for the opposite reason.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 10/22/2019 - 01:16 pm.


        Checks on fertility is what monsters do. The point is not to criticize those who have children, the point is to be honest about what the economy is doing to the earth, that humanity is entirely dependent on a global ecosystem we are heedlessly destroying, that to perpetrate ecocide against specie diversity and the resilience of natural systems is to perpetrate ecocide against humanity, ourselves.

        Racism is distraction for idiots, played upon by politicians to distract from an economy that is ecocidal pillage and plunder.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/23/2019 - 06:43 am.

          “Checks on fertility is what monsters do”?


          So people using the Pill or condoms are “monsters”?

          I don’t even know where to begin to respond to this . . . . . . .

          • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 10/23/2019 - 08:17 am.

            You misread me, Pat. A “check” on fertility would be forced birth control, forced sterilization, forced limits on births – or, making birth control unavailable or illegal.

            • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/23/2019 - 08:46 am.

              And I’m about 99.9% sure you “misread” Ray Schoch. He is the LAST person I can imagine would advocate for “forced birth control, forced sterilization, forced limits on births – or, making birth control unavailable or illegal.”

              Try responding to the points actually made.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 10/22/2019 - 05:22 pm.

      If the population of the US were 3 times as great, (1 billion,) our population density would be half the present population density of Germany. Of course, half our land isn’t really livable, but even accounting for that, I’m pretty sure we have the space and resources to accommodate a great many more people. The idea that “America is full” is nonsense.

      The changeover from fossil fuel is an impediment, not a deal breaker. The harder issue would be water, but there actually is enough, if we treat it right.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 10/23/2019 - 08:26 am.


        The population of America is three times what it was 100 years ago, and America is exponentially more polluted and less specie diverse. Put a billion here, and we would be more like India or China, not Germany.

        Such thinking comes from urban dwellers with no concept of the ecological consequence of cities on the land and waters, draining the world of “resources”.

        • Submitted by John Evans on 10/24/2019 - 11:38 am.

          But pollution is not a function of raw population numbers; it is a function of choices. Pricing pollution into energy consumption forces efficiency.

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 10/22/2019 - 08:39 pm.

      Thank you William for bringing up the subject of “the elephant in the room”, namely overpopulation, that very few people seem to see, and which is completely invisible to our politicians I think.

      I’m all for treating immigrants and those applying to be immigrants humanely and with respect, which is not being done now, the vast majority are after all just looking for a better life, and are NOT “mostly drug dealers and rapists”.

      However, I agree with your list of internal problems that we don’t have the money to combat now, given that we are nation 22 trillion and counting in debt, so a liberal immigration policy including chain immigration and so on, is not good for our country IMO.

      So I’m opposed to a liberal immigration policy, and if you look at the immigration policies of most developed nations around the world, they do not support chain immigration for example, and only Canada among developed nations still has birthright citizenship, and most will only let in people who clearly are a benefit to their society.

      Peoples from undeveloped countries around the world generally have a high fertility rate, which by the simple laws of physics will overwhelm the planet’s resources in a few short decades, which leads to all of our problem’s becoming many times worse – including war, poverty, hunger, and infectious disease, which thrives in overcrowded populations.

      Yet, if you randomly selected 100,000 people around the world, and asked them what the top 5 problems the world faces, I’m guessing only 5% maybe would list overpopulation as one of the top 5 problems – yet it contributes mightily and inevitably to the severity of practically every human problem, and that effect will only get worse as the planet becomes more and more overpopulated.

      I’m in favor of the “green” movement, but I think we need to recognize that the mostly ignored overpopulation issue is the perhaps the biggest “un-green” factor around.

      Without taking overpopulation control seriously, the benefits of recycling and alternative energy are probably a bit like using an 8 oz cup to bail water out of a boat that has a 5 gallon per minute leak in it’s hull – the bailing effort becomes mostly symbolic because the boat is still going to go down.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/23/2019 - 12:29 pm.

        Of course no discussion would be complete W/O some fact finding.
        The example kind of goes like this: If we don’t help the folks get a better life they will more or less maintain their existing life style. So, if overpopulation (which is global in nature) is your objective, than bring in immigrants may be a very good idea, because as they improve their life style they will tend to have fewer children lowering the global population growth curve. On another note, the facts suggest that at ~ 11M folks the population of the world will start to flatten out, according to the data in “Fact fullness” Of course the book was recommended by Bill Gates so I guess the “Fact fullness” of it may be questionable to a number of folks. , . .

  2. Submitted by Tim Smith on 10/22/2019 - 10:59 am.

    A few issues here, Not proven Ukraine was leveraged and not sure why Bidens walk off scot free on this one (well we do know why, but whatever). It’s not immigration or color, its illegal immigration and also keeping illegals who have committed crimes in this country. Scary is the thought ICE is now the bad guy.

    Prior occupants admin had kids in cages and seperation of families, but nary a whimper from dems and their msm pals.

    Dems want oipen borders becausew it helps them at ballot box, new prospects to bring to the fold. Not exactly leadership and the dems have no interest at all ins solving immigration issues, they can use it to scare people into voting for them.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/22/2019 - 12:09 pm.

      Just to deal with the most obvious counterfactual:
      No one has provided any evidence that either Biden as committed a crime, and the Biden’s have suffered costs (political for Joe; economic for Hunter).
      Of course, neither is in jail as Trump may eventually be (and some of his minions already are), but that’s another matter.

      • Submitted by Tim Smith on 10/22/2019 - 03:58 pm.

        No one said Biden’s committed a crime, it just looks horribly bad and very swamp like and very abuse of power like.

        • Submitted by John Evans on 10/22/2019 - 05:09 pm.

          Standard, seamy swampy practice.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/22/2019 - 05:59 pm.

          TS, now what if someone concocted a story about Tim Smith? He did this that and the other thing while working for company X. This is done with zero evidence and solely because you were competing with Joe Schmo for a position at company Y. Now all your friends and neighbors are questioning the ethical values of Tim Smith because of a 100% fake propaganda/conspiracy theory/story concocted just to discredit your good name. Good luck, as they say. You probably feel a tinge of injustice just reading the what if,

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/23/2019 - 12:14 pm.

          “No one said Biden’s committed a crime, it just looks horribly bad and very swamp like and very abuse of power like.”

          If there was no crime, why do we need an investigation?

          If we’re going to investigate everything that “looks horribly bad and very swamp like and very abuse of power like,” will the Trump family ever not be under investigation?

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/22/2019 - 12:29 pm.

      Lots of assertions and innuendo, nothing to support them.

      When, who, how many children were kept in cages? How many families separated? By whom, on whose orders?

      No Democrat that I’m aware of has advocated “open borders.” Provide names and dates, please.

    • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 10/22/2019 - 01:42 pm.

      No, Mr. Smith, it is color that is the bedrock of Trump’s campaign. When his backers fail to acknowledge the racism that oozes from him; well, sorry, but it’s pretty hard not to think of the whole bunch as racists themselves.

      The percentage of illegals who are criminals is very low, but to hear your great leader, it’s a wonder anyone close to the border hasn’t been robbed, raped, or murdered. That is, after they were forced to buy drugs from the hordes of criminals.

      The reason there’s been nary a whimper from us dems about prior policies regarding kids in cages and separating families is because it was done on a very small scale and not as a matter of policy trying to force immigrants from applying for asylum. Kids were literally being held as hostage so your great leader could follow through on his campaign promises. Still waiting for the news Mexico has made the first payments on the wall.

      Democrats used to propose solutions, and some Republicans even backed them, but the the nativists and racists always torpedoed any solutions. Now there’s a realization that whatever is proposed is sure to be rejected so why go there? We’re at the point where most Democrats are aiming at simply trying to get the laws presently in place to be actually followed. And, actually, Castro and Warren have made some concrete proposals. But keep going with the tried and tired line of us dems using immigration so we can get more voters. Fits right into the racist appeal of your great leader. You know, the guy who is being “lynched” because he’s the least racist person he knows.

      • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 10/23/2019 - 06:55 am.

        Accurately measuring illegal immigrant crime rates is not possible. First, the American Community Survey does not ask which inmates in adult correctional facilities are illegal immigrants.

        49 states do not record the immigration status of prison convicts. Many lefty controlled municipalities deliberately ignore the status of people arrested for crimes, and incarcerated in city/county jails. Worse still, many lefty state and local leaders decline to prosecute persons known to be in the country illegally.

        What we can say with authority is, the crime rate for illegal immigrants should be zero, in that every crime committed by persons in the US illegally is avoidable.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/22/2019 - 03:40 pm.

      Leading off with the Bidens is the first sign of a weak argument.

      If your herring’s too red, it will swell up your head.

  3. Submitted by Misty Martin on 10/22/2019 - 12:01 pm.

    This present administration is just a nightmare that I can’t wake up from . . . . no matter how hard I try.

    Thanks, as always, Eric, for continuing to keep us informed in your delightful way.

  4. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 10/22/2019 - 02:29 pm.

    American lefties seem to admire Canadian policies in many areas. Instead of assigning quotas by geological areas, Canadians tailor their immigration policy to benefit Canada; that is, they pick and choose among those that arrive with the most to offer Canada.

    Immigration policy in Canada is structured around three main categories:

    This category represents the largest portion of immigrants each year. Selection is based on a point system that rewards applicants with higher levels of education, job experience, and language skills (i.e., English and French).

    Family reunification.
    This class of immigrants includes spouses and children joining family members who are already living in Canada. This is the second-largest group of immigrants admitted on a yearly basis.

    This is the smallest group of immigrants admitted to Canada every year. It includes both humanitarian resettlement programs and claims for asylum protection.

    How about we adopt their immigration policy?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/22/2019 - 05:12 pm.

      The Trump administration, in yet another example of its blinding hypocrisy, has proposed cutting family unification immigration. An immigrant’s parents won’t be allowed in just to tend to their daughter’s young child, even if the daughter is the current wife of a corrupt real estate/celebrity branding macher.

      Canada admits more refugees than the US.

  5. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/22/2019 - 03:43 pm.

    “assuming he is a candidate in 2020”

    He’s been a candidate since the day he was inaugurated. As I recall, he started his attention-seeking rallies within the first month or two of his presidency.

    Unless, of course, you’re referring to the possibility of him being removed . . . . . . . .

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/22/2019 - 07:12 pm.

    America, claimed as the most powerful and richest country on the planet, very large swath of Christians with gigantic churches and Trump with solid Evangelical support. Curious, where does the term humanity for our fellow humans fit into this conversation, or doesn’t it?

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/24/2019 - 12:55 pm.

    Three points:

    1. All the concern on the part of the right wing seems to be about Latin American immigrants. Yet there are large numbers of Eastern Europeans and Irish living in the U.S. illegally, especially on the East Coast. In my academic career, I knew of two cases in which European academics came as visiting professors, found a same-sex partner, and stayed on in the U.S. illegally. No one seemed to be concerned about their presence or the presence of other Europeans. Could it be because they’re white?

    2. The immigrants coming over the southern border are literally America’s chickens coming home to roost. The U.S. has a long history of intervening in Central America whenever the peasants got uppity.

    During the Reagan and Bush Sr. years, paranoia about Communism led the U.S. to suppress movements that proposed much-needed reforms in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, three countries whose social structures were little different from feudalism. The one government (the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) that even tried to improve the lot of the average person was harassed to death by those two administrations between 1979 and 1990.

    These countries come close to the Libertarian ideal of low taxes and no government services. You get nothing unless you can buy it from the private sector, and there are few labor protections or environmental laws. There is a long history of people who try to unionize their workplaces ending up as mutilated corpses by the side of the road.

    The result is societies where the drug gangs and the military seem to be the only route out of the slums, and the drug gangs (which have more money) are supported by the unending demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. Yet since the national and local governments of those countries either don’t care what happens in the slums or have been bought off, the drug gangs run wild, creating intolerable situations for the rest of the population.

    Before the gang violence got out of control, these countries were touted as “retirement havens” for wealthy North Americans who wanted “freedom” from taxes and regulations and could afford to buy property in fully serviced gated communities and enjoy such perks as live-in servants who would work for a couple of dollars a day.

    3. During the Obama administration, children were “kept in cages” only if it was suspected that they were being trafficked or if they were unaccompanied adolescents. Nursing infants were not snatched out of their mothers’ arms. Parents were not *falsely* promised reunion with their children if they accepted voluntary deportation. There were no pre-verbal children being shuttled around the country away from their parents without identification. There were no rumors that such children were being channeled into private pseudo-Christian adoption agencies.

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