Trump taps into growing support for Fortress America

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Support for closing the door to the United States is growing thanks to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

Concern has simmered among Americans for years about exactly who should be allowed to enter the country. But that impulse has become stronger and more febrile of late, as fears rise that the San Bernadino attack, in which 14 people were killed, could presage more assaults inside the U.S. homeland from militants already living here.

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Republican front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCarson EXCLUSIVE: Trump uniquely suited to this American moment Trump manager: Clinton should follow Wasserman Schultz’s lead and resign It's midnight in America MORE, who launched his campaign with an assertion that “rapists” and “murderers” were immigrating illegally from Mexico, has now proposed barring all Muslims from entering the United States. In recent days, bipartisan support in Congress has been voiced for bills that would restrict access to the country for travelers with ties to terror hotspots.

“When you have an event like San Bernardino, and Paris, there is some need for the government to do something in response,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute. “If you don’t do something in response, you seem like you’re out of touch.”

Many Americans take pride in the concept of a “nation of immigrants” but there is also a long-standing nativist strand in U.S. politics. Now, there are signs some Americans are ready to shut the doors yet again.

“It’s definitely not an outlier. ... We always have this undercurrent of xenophobia that can burst at the seams,” said Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. “This might be the match that turns something that was simmering into a boil.”

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found 54 percent of Americans believe the U.S. accepts too many immigrants from the Middle East, and 53 percent oppose plans to permit Syrian refugees entry into the country.

The poll, conducted before Trump proposed his Muslim travel ban, indicated that 49 percent of adults believe there is an extremely or somewhat high risk a Syrian refugee could commit acts of “religious or political violence” in the U.S.

Trump’s proposal earned rebukes from politicians in both parties, from Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonCarson EXCLUSIVE: Trump uniquely suited to this American moment Trump manager: Clinton should follow Wasserman Schultz’s lead and resign It's midnight in America MORE to Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanClinton maps out first 100 days Why a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan's serious about regulatory reform Trump is right about one thing MORE (R-Wis.). Even politicians that are normally Trump-friendly, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), were unwilling to sign on to the idea of a blanket travel ban for followers of a particular religion.

Legal experts were quick to question whether such an idea would even be constitutional, let alone practical or proper.

But there has been little evidence to suggest that the idea is harming Trump’s political ambitions, even if it has been rejected across Washington.

Rather, a Bloomberg Politics poll found that two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters supported his plan, and a third said it actually made them more likely to vote for him.

Trump's views on the issue could be helpful to him, given that he is the only candidate in either party to call for the temporary travel ban, which appears to be popular with grassroots Republican voters. 

Experts draw a distinction between Trump's base and all Americans, and they got some support for their case from a new poll released Thursday evening. The survey, from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, found that 57 percent of all Americans disagree with Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there is a significant chunk of the public eager to crack down on an influx of foreigners — or that there's evidence the issue could prove beneficial to Trump.

The Bloomberg poll found that, all told, 37 percent of likely general election voters support the idea of banning Muslims from entering the country.

“The sentiment is there in the electorate. You don’t need Donald Trump to have people who are calling for borders to be closed, but he taps into it. He brings it out,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University.

Before the attacks in Paris and California, much of the immigration debate centered on what to do with illegal immigrants in the U.S., as some voters worried they posed an economic drain on the country and depressed wages for a native-born working and middle class that is already struggling. The changing demographics of the country and the growth of globalization have all contributed to that anxiety, experts say.

But the prospect of a terrorist gaining entry to the U.S. through immigration has added a more inflammatory element to the debate.

“Combine the unauthorized population with terrorism, and you have a potent combination,” said Chishti.

The debate in Congress has also shifted toward making it easier to keep people out, rather than allow people in.

The White House plans to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees, and President Obama condemned religious tests for admittance into America in a national address Sunday. But he also used part of the same speech to call on Congress to strengthen screening for visitors, in order to determine if they have spent time in areas with terrorist activity.

And lawmakers in both parties have rallied around efforts to tighten up programs that allow foreign travelers to enter the U.S.

The House passed legislation in November that would subject Syrian refugees to additional security scrutiny before being admitted. The legislation was passed with a veto-proof majority thanks to 47 Democrats who backed the bill despite White House opposition.

The House followed that up with a bill to bar anyone who has visited areas such as Syria and Iraq from entering the U.S. without a visa. The vote on that bill was even more lopsided, as it passed 407 to 19 on Tuesday.

Neither bill has become law yet, but Republicans are pushing hard to include some language in must-pass government funding legislation. They argue that failing to do so would tell voters back home they can’t do what needs to be done.

“I think the American people are just crying out for action on just commonsense, across-the-board everything,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) Thursday.

Julian Hattem contributed to this story.