Donald Trump surged to the head of the GOP presidential field last summer by adroitly exploiting some conservatives’ contempt for illegal immigrants and vowing to deport 12 million of them while building a wall along the border with Mexico to keep others out.
The real estate billionaire’s tactics were so successful that other Republican challengers including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida governor Jeb Bush stopped touting their immigration reform plans, which included border security, visa tracking, paying back taxes, learning English, and having a clean arrest record in exchange for legal status.
It is virtually impossible for the Republicans to win back the White House without a sizeable percentage of the Hispanic vote, as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ruefully discovered in the 2012 election. The last Republican to win the Presidency, George W. Bush, did so by capturing 44 percent in the 2004 election. John McCain won 31 percent in 2008, and Romney took only 27 percent.This is why Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is so dangerous to his party.
What Trump has done -- intentionally or inadvertently -- is create a litmus test that a significant percentage of the Republican primary voters will apply in making their choices for a nominee: Will they promise to deport 12 million illegal immigrants? And if so, how would they do it?
By invoking as a model the long disgraced 1950s-era “Operation Wetback” when several hundred thousand illegal immigrants were arrested and brutally deported to Mexico, Trump has set himself apart from Republican presidential field, further alienated Hispanic voters and possibly set up his party for a cataclysmic defeat in the 2016 presidential election.
“I just think it’s a huge strategic mistake by the Republican Party and hope that more Republicans start speaking out,” political analyst Julio Ricardo Varela of NPR’s Latino USA told MSNBC today.
The party’s dilemma was on full display during Tuesday night’s fourth GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, where Trump repeated his promise to rid the country of millions of illegal immigrants. “You are going to have to send people out” because “we are a country of laws,” he declared, while adding that he would do it in a humane way that will make everybody happy.
Cruz never specifically committed to mass deportation, but held himself out as the leading opponent of “amnesty” and echoed Trump’s “economic calamity” argument that illegal immigrants are “going to drive down the wages for millions of hard-working men and women.”
But Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Jeb Bush dismissed Trump’s call for mass deportation as impractical, costly and cruel. They argued that it was time for their party to take a more reasoned approach to immigration reform and stop playing political games.
“Come on folks, we all know you can’t pick them up and ship them back across the border,” a clearly agitated Kasich declared while looking at Trump. “It’s a silly argument.”
“Think about the families, think about the children,” Kasich added.
Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American and who now advocates a path to earned legal status (but not citizenship) for many illegal immigrants, insisted that mass deportation is “just not possible.”
“It would tear communities apart,” he said. “And it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.”
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is still seeking absolution from conservative Republicans for co-authoring a 2013 bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.
He largely kept out of the fray during the debate fireworks over immigration reform, but then made it clear the following morning in an interview with NPR that he didn’t favor mass deportations. Rubio said that he favors a path to citizenship for some, though it would be a tough road to travel.
"If you haven't been here very long, or you're a criminal, you will be deported," Rubio told NPR's Morning Edition. "Otherwise, you will have to come forward, pass the background check, learn English, pay a fine, because you violated the law, start paying taxes, and you'll get a work permit. And that's all you're going to have for at least a decade."
Overall, Americans disagree with Trump’s extreme views on immigration, and roughly two-thirds are inclined to support reforms that would allow many illegal immigrants to apply for legal status or citizenship, according to a Gallup survey last summer.
However, one-in-three Republicans say they favor deporting all illegal immigrants, according to the same survey, and that is up from 20 percent in 2006. Moreover, an online survey by the Economist Group/YouGov released this week shows that 49 percent of Republicans believe that Trump “would best handle the issue of immigration.”
By comparison, Rubio was picked by 10 percent of the Republicans surveyed, Cruz was favored by 7 percent and Bush and Ben Carson picked up 5 percent each. However, the survey was conducted November 5 to 9, just before the latest GOP debate and flare-up over immigration policy.
As long as he kept his ideas for mass deportation in the abstract, Trump had no trouble rallying the GOP base and drawing huge crowds to his speeches. Railing against illegal immigrants as rapists, criminals and job stealers has served him well on the campaign trail, in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
But now Trump is under pressure to explain precisely how he would manage the costly (some say $100 billion or more) and constitutionally treacherous mass deportation of illegal immigrants if he is elected president. And as he tries to explain, for example, how a new federal “deportation force” could succeed in carrying out his policies, Trump is being greeted skeptically by Democratic and Republican analysts alike.
Bill O'Reilly of Fox News told Trump Wednesday night that his plan to deport millions will never work and noted that “Operation Wetback” during the Eisenhower administration resulted in the deportation of at most one million illegal immigrants.
According to accounts of that episode, deported Mexicans faced extreme conditions and were sometimes left in the desert. Some 88 deported workers died in 112-degree heat in July 1955.
"Believe me when I tell you, Mr. Trump, that was brutal what they did to those people to kick them back," O'Reilly said. "The stuff they did was really brutal. It could never happen today."
White House Press Secretary Josh Ernest added this today: “I think this is just one of many places where Mr. Trump is fundamentally in a place that does not reflect the broad view of a vast majority of Americans, in terms of how inhumane what he’s emphasizing is but also how he refuses to discuss how much it would cost and how he refuses to recognize what impact that would actually have on the safety of our communities and the safety of our country.”