Trump Dealt Himself a Losing Hand With Fiery Immigration Speech
Policy + Politics

Trump Dealt Himself a Losing Hand With Fiery Immigration Speech

Donald Trump, a crafty businessman and negotiator, has shown a knack over the past year for shifting his views to capitalize on the political zeitgeist and getting himself out of a sticky thicket. 

He bobbed and weaved after publicly suggesting that women should be punished for undergoing an illegal abortion. He backed down after calling for a total ban on Muslims entering the country to reduce the threat of a terrorist attack. And he modified his idea of prioritizing the government’s payments to creditors to get a better handle on the burgeoning public debt.

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It’s possible, of course, that Trump’s speech Wednesday night against illegal immigration and his doubling down on tracking down and deporting the 11 million or so undocumented aliens living in this country could be modified or amended before the Nov. 8 election.

Trump’s tone and rhetoric shocked some at times, as the former reality TV superstar railed against illegal immigrants who mooch off government programs. He denounced refugees from Syria and Libya for posing a dangerous terrorist threat. He called for the “extreme vetting” of immigrant applicants, including what amounts to a loyalty test of sorts, by investigating their politics and religious beliefs. And he piled up more proposals for tightening border enforcement and rooting out immigrants who have overstayed their visas.

Trump is capable of turning on a dime and toning down his rhetoric, as he did during his high-profile meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City yesterday afternoon and again this morning during a speech to the American Legion in Cincinnati.

But with fewer than 70 days remaining in his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton, time is quickly running out, and it may be too late for another redo of his policies before voters go to the polls. With so much media and campaign hype about his Phoenix address, Trump’s speech must now be viewed as the definitive statement on his immigration policies and how he would proceed as the next president.

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By encouraging and even fueling that buildup with TV appearances and a town hall, Trump has finally set his often elusive immigration policies in concrete. Now he must live with the political consequences, for better or worse.

Already there are indications that in his eagerness to placate activists in his largely white conservative political base who fretted for days that Trump may be waffling on immigration, the billionaire may have shot himself in the foot.

Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster and political adviser who backed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida during the GOP presidential primaries, said that it may now be impossible for Trump to piece together a winning coalition in November, even while the polls show him closing in on Clinton. 

“He went back to square one, where his uncompromising tone on immigrants and illegal immigration is locked in even more so than before,” Ayres said in an interview today. “That’s going to make it virtually impossible to expand his Hispanic support. Consequently, it will also make it difficult for him to expand his vote among African Americans, Asians, and other non-white minorities.”

Related: Is Trump Dumping His Plan to Deport 11 Million Illegal Immigrants?

“He spent the entire time in his Phoenix speech preaching to the converted,” Ayres added.

In his speech to a wildly enthusiastic gathering of supporters in Phoenix, Trump outlined in detail his ten-point plan for ridding the U.S. of what he characterized as the scourge of illegal immigration.

The shorthand summary of his proposals includes:

  • Build a security wall along the 2,000-mile southern border and forcing Mexico to pay for it.

  • Cut off federal funding to “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles and San Francisco that provide aid to illegal immigrants.

  • End “catch and release” practices of border security forces that allow illegal immigrants repeated tries to enter the country.

  • Deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, many who have lived in the U.S. for years without causing trouble.

  • Rule out “amnesty” or a path to legal status or citizenship. 

Trump’s plan also would target hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes for immediate expulsion—an exact replica of the Obama administration’s deportation strategy. Of the 4.4 million illegal immigrants deported between 2001 and 2014, 67 percent were criminals. (See chart below.) 

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For a while last week, Trump generated considerable buzz in appearances with Sean Hannity of Fox News in which he seemed to hint that he was suddenly flexible on the deportation question and whether some generally law-abiding undocumented immigrants who paid back taxes and kept their noses clean might be allowed to remain in the U.S. and qualify for legal status.

But during his rousing hour and a half speech last night in Arizona – a hotbed of pro-Trump, anti-immigration Republican activism – Trump swept away any serious suggestion that he would compromise. That immediately put him at odds with the increasingly powerful bloc of Hispanic voters and more moderate Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who have steadily grown more alarmed by Trump’s inflammatory, nationalistic rhetoric and threats.

“As with any law enforcement activity, we will set priorities,” he said last night. “But unlike this administration, no one will be immune or exempt from enforcement…. Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation -- that is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise, we don’t have a country.”

On the question of whether any illegal immigrants would have a chance to gain legal status or citizenship without having to leave the country and formally apply for re-entry from their country of origin, Trump made it clear they would be out of luck. Those seeking legal status have “one route and one route only,” Trump said, and that begins with leaving the U.S.

“We will break the cycle of amnesty and illegal immigration,” he said. “There will be no amnesty. Our message to the world will be this. You cannot obtain legal status or become a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country. Can’t do it.”

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For more than a year, Trump has been talking about ridding the country of illegal immigrants – especially those who have committed violent crimes and even murder of innocent Americans. During his speech last night, he called to the stage a half dozen or so people who lost their children or other relatives to the violent acts of illegal immigrants.

His declarations and proposals overshadowed the more reasonable policy prescriptions of many of his GOP primary rivals, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Sen. Marco Rubio (now running again for Senate) and even arch-conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Immigration reform became Trump’s signature issue, and he rode it to victory across the country and all the way to the GOP national convention in Cleveland this summer.

That hard-edged served Trump well during the primaries, especially in border states such as Arizona and Texas, as well as throughout the South and Midwest. But his scorched earth approach to immigration became problematic as a strategy in the general election campaign, as both parties attempt to cast as wide a net as possible.

Related: 5 Reasons the Trump Immigration Plan Doesn’t Pass the Reality Test

In 2013, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus produced a 100-page autopsy of what went wrong for the GOP in the 2012 election when President Obama soundly defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The problem, he concluded, was that the number of white voters in the party was shrinking and that it was unlikely the Republicans could win another election without substantially more support from Hispanics and blacks.

By far, George W. Bush had the best showing among Hispanics in 2004 when he won 44 percent of the Latino vote on his way to a reelection victory. In 2012, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won just 27 percent of Hispanics in his losing bid against Obama.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that in a two-way race against Clinton, just 24 percent of Hispanic registered voters would support Trump. And Trump has done worse in other similar surveys. 

Even if Trump were able to match Bush’s showing among Latinos, it wouldn’t be enough to win the popular vote and carry the election in light of fast-changing demographics.

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What’s more, most Americans – including Republicans – strongly disagree with Trump’s heavy-handed approach to immigration reform. A new Fox News poll shows that when voters are presented with a choice, they favor the creation of a system for illegal immigrants working in the U.S. to become legal residents instead of deporting them – by a whopping margin of 77 percent to 19 percent.

That same poll shows that those who support a path to legalization favor Clinton over Trump by 18 percentage points. Clinton led Trump narrowly, by two points, in the overall contest.

Finally, Politico is reporting that several of Trumps most prominent Hispanic surrogates say they are reconsidering their support in the wake of the Phoenix speech, while Jacob Monty, a member of Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Council, has resigned.

‘I was a strong supporter of Donald Trump when I believed he was going to address the immigration problem realistically and compassionately,’ said Monty, a Houston lawyer. “What I heard today was not realistic and not compassionate.”