Donald Trump’s anti-immigration talk could cost Republicans
Party risks losing Latino support as Trump’s rivals seek to match his hardline stance
US presidential candidate Donald Trump at Manhattan Supreme Court in New York on Monday, where he appeared for jurty duty. Trump’s hard line on immigration has driven rivals to match his biting anti-immigrant language. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Republicans thought they had learned a lesson after 2012: Turning off Latino voters ensures defeat in the general election. But as the disruptive US presidential candidacy of Donald J Trump continues to gain support, his hard line on immigration has driven rivals to match his biting anti-immigrant language and positions long considered extreme. It risks another general election cycle in which Hispanics view the party as unfriendly no matter who the nominee is, Republican strategists warned.
This week, several of Trump’s Republican rivals, including Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, echoed his call to end automatic citizenship for the US-born children of unauthorised immigrants, long a fringe idea that would repeal a constitutional right dating from the Civil War era.
And Trump’s plan for mass deportations – “They have to go,” he said – which is supported by a sizable minority of Republican voters, around 40 per cent in polls, has encouraged rivals to similarly push the edges on immigration.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas introduced a bill last month named for a woman who was shot dead in San Francisco by an immigrant living in the US illegally, a case first highlighted by Trump. Louisana governor Bobby Jindal a went further, saying mayors of sanctuary cities – where local law enforcement officials decline to co-operate in federal deportations – should be arrested as accomplices when immigrants who entered the country illegally commit felonies.
National Republican strategists warn that catering to the most hardline voters on immigration in the nominating contest will hurt the party in the presidential election, as it did for the 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who endorsed “self-deportation” for unauthorised immigrants and attracted historically low Latino support.
“If Republicans want to be competitive in the general election, they have to distance themselves from Trump on both illegal and legal immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a former official in George W Bush’s administration and executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, a conservative group. “His proposal on birthright citizenship is very insulting to Latinos, and every day, this is the top story on Spanish language media. Right now, if the other candidates don’t respond to Trump, Latinos will buy the argument that Republicans agree with him. They cannot remain quiet.”
Demographics suggest Republicans have an even bigger challenge with Latinos in 2016 than in previous elections. The number of Latino voters has been growing rapidly. Between the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, the population of Latinos eligible to vote grew by 19 per cent.
By 2016, that electorate is expected to increase by 18 per cent over 2012 to about 28 million people, more than 11 per cent of voters nationwide, according to projections by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (Naleo), a nationwide nonpartisan Latino organisation.
While Latino registration and turnout rates have lagged behind other groups in recent cycles, Latino organisations have focused their registration drives in states such as Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where Latino votes can swing elections and which proved critical to President Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
Walker, who led in Iowa polls for months before being eclipsed recently by Trump, took a harder anti-immigration position on Monday by seeming to support an end to birthright citizenship during a visit to the Iowa State Fair. At the same time, Trump’s hardline positions, including seizing remittances sent by unauthorised workers to Mexico and severely restricting legal immigration, are allowing some rivals to define themselves more clearly in opposition to him.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Trump’s plan “gibberish” at the Iowa fair on Monday, saying, “You’re not going to get 11 million people and drive them back out of this country. That’s just not practical. That’s going to kill the Republican Party. ”
But for now, the major candidates in the Republican field who are relative moderates on immigration – Graham, Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Ohio governor John R Kasich and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida – do not have the momentum or the news media attention enjoyed by Trump, who is not only denouncing illegal immigration but attacking legal immigrants in full-throated nativist language. And his calls to deport immigrants in the US illegally are resonating with many voters.
“I’m okay with that,” said Jessie McInville, a medical technologist from Urbandale, Iowa. “We all have to abide by our laws.” Her husband, Jason, who said he twice voted for Obama for president, shook his head in agreement. Bruce Anderson, a farmer and auctioneer from Orion, Illinois, agreed with Trump’s plans to restrict legal immigration on the ground, saying it has taken jobs from citizens. “All immigration should be shut down in America for a while,” Anderson said.
Perhaps the most difficult issue for the Republican Party is Trump’s call not only to deport all unauthorised immigrants, but also young people who came to this country as children and have received protections though executive actions by Obama. “We have to keep the families together, but they have to go,” Trump told Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” in an interview aboard his jet at the Des Moines airport.
It is an issue that other Republicans until now have tried to duck, focusing on securing the southern border. At the first Republican debate for the bottom seven candidates in the polls, former governor Rick Perry of Texas framed the issue typically, saying that only when the border is sealed tight would Washington be “up to a conversation to deal with the millions of people that are here illegally”.
A sizable core of Republican voters favours such mass deportations, including 43 per cent in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. But that position is out of step with three-fourths of Americans – including 76 per cent of independents – who believe immigrants living here illegally should be allowed to stay if certain conditions are met, according to a Pew Research Center survey in June. And a narrow majority of Republicans favour giving unauthorised immigrants a path to legal status or citizenship.
No matter who emerges as the Republican nominee, experts in Hispanic voting say many will remember the harsh anti-immigrant tone of the primaries and shun the party come next November. “Latinos are not going to forget,” said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of Naleo. “We have seen in past elections that the way candidates talk about immigrants has served to unify Latino voters.”
That was a lesson top GOP strategists drew from 2012, writing in a self-critical “autopsy” that called on the party to enact comprehensive immigration reform in Congress – or continue being swamped in general elections by the growing Latino vote.
“I think Donald Trump is not helping,” said Stuart Stevens, who was Romney’s chief strategist in 2012. “It’s mean-spirited and regrettable.” Well before Trump came along, however, his current rivals were toughening their immigration stances. Mike Huckabee, who as governor of Arkansas supported a state law giving in-state college tuition for unauthorised students, said in March in Iowa that he wanted to “stem the tide” of people from Mexico who have “heard there’s a bowl of food just across the border”.
Walker, who in 2013 favoured a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, reversed himself earlier this year, telling Fox News, “My view has changed; I’m flat-out saying it.” Ryan Call, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, noted that Republican candidates such as Senator Cory Gardner won election in the state in 2014 by opening a “meaningful dialogue” with Hispanic voters.
“Trump’s plan and rhetoric takes us in exactly the opposite direction and will undermine much of the progress we have made in reaching out to the growing population of Hispanics and immigrants in Colorado and in other battleground states,” he said.
New York Times