Birthright citizenship vow shows Trump doubling down on immigration gambit

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President Trump is doubling down on his hard-line immigration stance in the final days before the midterm elections, revisiting a tried-and-tested plan he hopes will fire up his core supporters and get them to the polls on Election Day.

Trump has recently made a series of dramatic, yet legally dubious, proposals designed to stoke fears about what he says is a rising influx of undocumented immigrants into the U.S.

{mosads}The approach could redirect attention from a series of bad headlines for Trump, from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the bomb-scare involving prominent Democrats to the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But it also comes with its own risks.

Stymied on his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump is communicating to supporters that he intends to deliver on his campaign pledges on immigration, even if it is unclear how many of those plans will come to fruition.

“I think it’s a pretty clear message that he’s the guy who is doing exactly what he told voters he would do when they elected him,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former Trump White House official.

“When he said he doesn’t want illegal immigration and he doesn’t want amnesty, he meant it,” Surabian added. “It’s less about immigration, per se, and more about the president following through on his promises to his voters.”

In an interview with Axios released Tuesday, Trump vowed to end citizenship for children of nonlegal residents born in the U.S., a change he proposed during the 2016 campaign, even though birthright citizenship is enshrined in the Constitution.

Trump did not say when he would sign a such an order, and he has at times failed to follow through on pledges to take other executive actions. But the promise caps a string of statements designed to put immigration back in the national spotlight as voters head to the polls next Tuesday.

Administration officials last week floated the possibility of closing the U.S. southern border to migrants, including asylum seekers, in response to a shrinking “caravan” of Central Americans that Trump has portrayed as a threat to national security.

The Pentagon announced Monday it is deploying 5,200 active-duty troops to respond to the caravan, an announcement that drew widespread media coverage even though the military is expected to serve only in a support role at the border.

Trump that same day told Fox News he wants to “put tents up all over the place” to house migrants who cross the border in the caravan, reminiscent of former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous “tent city” jail.

The dizzying array of proposals could serve to refocus the midterm debate back toward an issue that Trump is more comfortable discussing.

In the midst of an intense federal investigation of the bomb threats, Trump bemoaned the fact “this ‘bomb’ stuff” was taking the news media’s focus off the campaign and slowing Republicans’ “momentum” heading into next month’s elections.

Progressives and immigrant rights groups have decried Trump’s immigration rhetoric as a naked ploy to scapegoat immigrants in order to whip up his base to save Republican majorities in Congress.

“It’s obvious to all of us that these moves are not really about immigration policy,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the left-leaning group America’s Voice. “It’s really about the midterm election and the desire of the president and his team to grab the news cycle by the throat and talk about immigration and not the domestic terrorism we have seen this week.”

But Democratic lawmakers have largely refused to engage with Trump on immigration, preferring instead to focus on health care, an issue they believe will resonate more with voters.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship “shows Republicans’ spiraling desperation to distract from their assault on Medicare, Medicaid and people with pre-existing conditions.”

“Clearly, Republicans will do absolutely anything to divert attention away from their votes to take away Americans’ health care,” she added.

In the caravan, however, Trump has found a made-for-TV story he can regularly use at campaign rallies to rile up his base.

“This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense,” the president said at a rally this month Montana, referencing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Trump called the caravan an “invasion” full of “Many Gang Members and some very bad people” in a Monday tweet intended to highlight the migrant group, which he has accused Democrats of supporting.

“As we speak, the Democrat Party is openly encouraging caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to violate our laws and break into our country,” Trump said last Wednesday at a Wisconsin rally.

Trump is traveling to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to offer condolences to the Jewish community following Saturday’s synagogue shooting, a trip that all four congressional leaders from both parties turned down.

That could prove to be the president’s final pause before a breakneck rally schedule beginning Wednesday, laden with red states that have competitive Senate and gubernatorial races, but few close House contests.

Trump’s travel in the campaign’s final week includes stops in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia — areas where he remains popular and will be called upon to help boost voter turnout.

Trump says Democrats are offering a “scary” vision for the country on immigration, and is expected to drive home that contrast to voters, according to a person familiar with the president’s political strategy.

“This election is not a referendum, it’s a choice between the parties,” said the person.

Many Republican lawmakers seeking reelection are following Trump’s lead in highlighting the immigration issue in hopes it can help turn out Trump’s die-hard supporters and some undecided voters.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos analysis found that the number of immigration-related tweets this year from 156 GOP office-holders exceeded the number of similar posts from 2016 and 2017 combined. Spending on pro-Republican ads focused on immigration this election cycle has more than doubled money spent on GOP immigration ads in the 2014 midterms.

“Midterms are inherently base elections, and few issues resonate with the Republican base more than the issue of illegal immigration,” said Republican strategist Colin Reed. “It’s really not a surprise that he is focusing on it down the stretch, especially with the way the Senate map is laid out.”

But the president’s call to end birthright citizenship was a step too far for many top Republicans, including outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), who rejected the idea as unconstitutional.

Some in the party also say Trump’s base play on immigration could have limited success, especially in competitive House races.

Retiring Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) said Trump’s plan to end birthright citizenship is “political malpractice” that could harm GOP incumbents running in districts with large immigrant populations, like several swing seats in Florida and California.

“We all know challenges of suburban R’s. The bloc of competitive R held districts less impacted by POTUS thus far are those w high # of immigrants. So now POTUS, out of nowhere, brings birthright citizenship up. Besides being basic tenet of America, it’s political malpractice,” he tweeted.

Roughly half of Latinos say their situation in the U.S. has worsened over the past year, and 55 percent say they are worried that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.

Trump is ramping up his immigration rhetoric at a time when some on Capitol Hill believe the president and his team have all but written off their ability to maintain a Republican majority in the House.

But Trump, who launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by calling Mexicans “rapists” who are bringing drugs and crime to the U.S., has long believed his message on immigration has broad appeal.

He referenced so-called sanctuary cities and “open borders,” which he says Democrats support, in his closing arguments for GOP candidates in special elections in Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Speaking to the Nevada Republican Party state convention in June, he said Democrats “just want to use the issue” of immigration to boost their political standing.

“I like the issue for election, too,” Trump said. “Our issue is strong borders, no crime. Their issue is open borders, let MS-13 all over our country.”

Niall Stanage contributed.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Immigration News Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan Ryan Costello

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