Trump forces immigration debate
© Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE is single-handedly forcing the Republican presidential candidates into a wide-ranging debate on immigration that party leaders had hoped to avoid. 

The dominance of the issue has grown in recent weeks, with the contenders scrambling to respond to Trump’s positions and one-up him when it comes to keeping the border secure.

ADVERTISEMENT

In just the past few days, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has appeared open to building a wall along the U.S.-Canadian border, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suggested asking FedEx founder Fred Smith to help the government design a way to track immigrants who come into the country on visas.

Those remarks came after Trump put his rivals on the spot by proposing an end to birthright citizenship, stirring an intra-party fight over “anchor babies” that has yet to subside.

Some Republicans are watching the debate with growing alarm, fearing it will deepen the GOP’s problems with Hispanic voters in an election cycle where they desperately need them.

Alfonso Aguilar, the Latino partnership director at the American Principles Project, lamented the rhetoric coming from the GOP field. 

“Trump is making self-deportation sound like a benign policy,” Aguilar said, referencing 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s controversial statement about illegal immigrants leaving the country voluntary.

“[Trump’s] impact on the Republican brand in general is toxic, it’s bad, because it a allows Democrats to say, ‘Republicans are racist, [and] we are good.’ ”

After losing the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee (RNC) sought to chart a new course for the party on immigration. In a comprehensive “autopsy” of Romney’s defeat, the RNC noted how President Obama won 71 percent of the growing demographic bloc.

“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the plan said.  

“It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

But Trump has taken an unapologetically tough stand on immigration during his meteoric rise, starting with his launch speech where he accused Mexico of sending rapists and other criminals to the United States.

Since then, Trump has called for building a wall on the southern border at Mexico’s expense and advocated for the mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

With Trump firmly atop the national polls, the other Republican candidates have been forced to fight on his turf.

“Everyone is now competing to say, ‘Oh no I will put them in camps,' 'Oh no I will throw them out,' 'I will put everyone in jail,' 'I will have an electric fence and I'll do this,’ ” said Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCivil rights group marks MLK Day with call for 'Trump card' national ID Pressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal House Republicans call for moving State of the Union to Senate chamber MORE (R-Ky.), whose standing in presidential polls has fallen this summer.

“The biggest thing we need to do is have a functioning immigration system with a good work program, we need to say that we have zero tolerance — you come in illegally, you'll be sent back," Paul added.

Much of Trump’s fire on immigration has been directed at Jeb Bush, who had ridiculed the businessman’s immigration plan and accused him of appealing to people's “angst” and “anger.”

Trump on Monday released a video highlighting Bush’s characterization of illegal immigration sometimes being an "act of love" by people looking to provide for their families.

Bush’s words were accompanied in the video by the mug shots of three illegal immigrants who committed violent crimes while in the United States.

“Love? Forget love, it’s time to get tough!" text in the Trump video says.

Bush fired back, accusing Trump of being “soft on crime.”

“While Donald Trump was still supporting liberal, soft-on-crime politicians, Jeb Bush accumulated an eight-year record of cracking down on violent criminals as governor of Florida,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said in a statement.

The back-and-forth created yet another day of headlines about immigration.

While the debate appears to be benefitting Trump, it could risk turning off Hispanic voters, who will be crucial in the general election.

At least 14 percent of the eligible voter population in 2012 in the swing states of Colorado, Florida and Nevada identified as Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center, making those states difficult to win without their support.

But so far, polling suggests that Hispanic voters aren’t letting their feelings about Trump shape their views of the other GOP candidates. 

A July Univision poll found that while 71 percent of Hispanics view Trump unfavorably, only 14 percent believe the comments are reflective of the GOP at large.

And while an August Gallup poll found Trump with a negative 51 percent favorability gap among Hispanics, no other candidate found themselves in the double-digits negative. Bush was the only candidate with a double-digit positive net favorable rating, with a positive 11 percent gap.

“It has not yet damaged the rest of the field, but it certainly has that potential,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.