THE MEMO: Trump’s big immigration gamble

President Trump is gambling on his immigration policy. But it’s a risky bet.

The president is going full-steam ahead with the hard-line approach that his team believes fueled his election win last year. Whether he can bring the country with him is another matter.

On Tuesday, the administration announced a host of changes to immigration enforcement. The shift includes the hiring of thousands of new Border Patrol officers, a major expansion in the number of people subject to expedited deportation and the establishment of a new office focused on “immigration crime.”

The announcement came in two memos from the Department of Homeland Security. The documents reiterated Trump’s plan to press ahead with his famous promise to build a wall along the southern border with Mexico, and underlined his administration’s opposition to the policies of so-called sanctuary cities.

Meanwhile, a new, revised version of Trump’s earlier executive order suspending travel from seven majority-Muslim nations is expected soon — though that release has been delayed until next week.

Trump has asserted that he is a standard-bearer for the “forgotten men and women” of America who feel that their nation has changed for the worse.

“We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own,” Trump said in his inauguration address. 

Earlier this month on Twitter, he wrote, “The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” 

Trump aides make no bones about their belief that his immigration stance was fully endorsed by the electorate last November.

White House spokesman Michael Short told The Hill, “He campaigned hard on this issue and won 306 electoral votes — the most for a Republican nominee since 1988.”

Short also noted a Harvard-Harris Poll survey, exclusively provided to The Hill, which found that 80 percent of voters believe cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should turn them over to the immigration authorities.

Trump himself tweeted about that poll on Tuesday afternoon — a sign that the president’s political antennae are closely tuned to public opinion on the issue.

Advocates for stricter immigration policies also believe Trump is on the right side of public opinion. 

“This is one of the reasons why he is president,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that seeks to stop illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration.

“Improbable as it was, he ended up winning the election based on addressing the real concerns that the American public has had over immigration, as well as some other things,” Mehlman added.

The polling on the issues is not so clear-cut, however.

Trump’s election win could just as easily be seen as coming despite his immigration stance, rather than because of it. 

Election Day exit polls showed that a clear majority of voters — 70 percent — believed illegal immigrants should be offered some form of legal status. Only 25 percent favored deportation. 

Those same exit polls showed Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico was supported by 41 percent of voters — but opposed by 54 percent. 

Findings like that bolster liberal confidence that Trump is making a political misjudgment in pressing ahead. 

People “roundly reject the idea of mass deportation,” said Tom Jawetz, the vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal group. “The American public does not support building his border wall. The American public does not support, and is increasingly opposed, to his Muslim ban.”

Trump supporters would contest that view. Polling on the travel ban is inconclusive so far. The most recent major poll, from the Pew Research Center, showed a very clear majority against it: 59 percent to 38 percent. But three other surveys not long before, from Quinnipiac University, CBS News and CNN respectively, showed a closely divided public.

Debate will also rage for years about how big a part Trump’s immigration stance played in his election victory — especially when it comes to the key Rust Belt and Industrial Midwest states that sealed his win.

In Ohio, a full 36 percent of voters believed illegal immigrants should be deported, compared to just 25 percent nationwide. In neighboring Pennsylvania, the figure was 31 percent. But Trump also won Wisconsin and Michigan, where the pro-deportation vote was almost indistinguishable from the national norm, at 26 percent and 27 percent respectively. 

Terry Madonna, a public affairs professor and polling expert at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College, argued the importance of immigration as a primary factor in the election is overstated. He asserted that the economy, jobs and wage stagnation were more potent.

But he added that immigration played into a broader picture of cultural anxiety among Trump supporters.

“For many, many voters in small-town and rural America, they wake up and think they are living in a strange land — a land of immigration, of gay marriage and of the people who want to take my guns away,” he said. “That side of it played a role too.”

On Wednesday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) toured a section of the border with Mexico for the first time. In a statement, he promised that the Republican Congress would work with Trump in “securing the border and enforcing our laws.”

Whether that approach bears political dividends — or extracts a price — remains to be seen. 


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Tags Donald Trump Paul Ryan

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