Commentary: Is Trump politicizing the New York City terror attack?

Accusations about politicians "politicizing" events like the New York City terror attack or the Las Vegas shooting have always confused me.

Of course they're "politicizing." They're politicians. And issues like immigration and gun control are addressed by passing laws through Congress and sending them to the White House. It's about as elementary as "Schoolhouse Rock."

So when an immigrant commits a terrorist act in New York City that leaves eight innocent civilians dead, of course a president who ran on a platform of restricting immigration is going to use it to bolster support for his policies. Specifically, the day after the attack, President Trump called for an end to the "diversity visa lottery" program, which is the program used by the Uzbek perpetrator to enter the U.S.

"I am going to ask Congress to immediately initiate work to get rid of this program," President Trump announced Wednesday. "It sounds nice. It's not nice."

Mr. Trump's critics cried hypocrisy, pointing out that Mr. Trump deferred calls for changes in gun laws two days after the Las Vegas massacre -- "we'll be talking about gun laws as time goes by," he said. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders defended Mr. Trump, pointing out that, unlike restrictive gun laws, "the president has been talking about extreme vetting and the need for that for the purpose of protecting the citizens of this country since he was a candidate – long before he was president."

It's hard to argue that the Americans who elected President Trump are surprised he wants to tighten immigration rules. It's also hard to argue that President Trump shouldn't do in the wake of the New York attack what President Obama did repeatedly in the wake of mass shootings -- argue for gun control.

But it may be Democrats who are trying to make the more difficult case in defending the visa lotteries.

Americans have mixed feelings about immigration. One the one hand, they don't want -- to quote  President Trump -- to be "mean."  They don't want illegal immigrant kids deported to countries they barely remember. And Americans don't like the idea of a border wall. 

At the same time, polls show Americans support Trump's efforts at a so-called "travel ban" from countries with terrorism issues. And according to Gallup, twice as many Americans want to see legal immigration levels either reduced or stay at their current levels versus increasing immigration.  This may be a reaction to the fact that a record 43 million immigrants live in the U.S., and the percentage of population that's foreign-born is approaching levels not seen since the great migrations of the late 1800s.

And now yet another immigrant has turned our generosity against us, taking advantage of an immigration loophole most of us had never heard of.

For many Americans, none of the words in "diversity visa lottery" make sense.  They want immigrants who can add to the economy or provide some asset to our country. Simply being from a country not many people are from doesn't do that. And living in America is a great opportunity. Why would we give that to 50,000 people a year -- at random?

And while there are no recent polls regarding the specific green-card lottery system, a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found general support for the RAISE Act, the GOP immigration reform plan that would replace it with a merit-based immigration policy.  So, the issue of immigration reform remains a winner for President Trump.

Also consider that the countries that received the largest share of diversity visas last year were Nepal, Egypt, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan and Ethiopia. Several of these countries have security and terrorism issues -- Iran is one the countries covered by the president's travel ban.

More than half of all Uzbek immigrants to the U.S. come here on the visa lottery system.  It's one thing to welcome college students or engineers or business owners from these countries who want to bring their skills and assets to America. But granting visas to random people by pure chance from nations with these issues is likely to be viewed by voters as problematic.

Americans are starting to ask the question "What's in it for us?" How does inviting random low- or no-skill immigrants from distant nations to come to the U.S. help us?  It certainly didn't help the victims of the New York attack.

Republicans are advocating an immigration approach that would, as the president says, puts America first: would-be immigrants would be evaluated on what they can do for America. This puts Democrats in the unenviable position of urging Americans to reject that.

It was already a tough debate for Democrats. Tuesday's terror attack made it worse -- with or without Mr. Trump's tweets.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.