The Memo: Dangers loom for Trump on immigration

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE is ramping up his rhetoric on immigration, but it may not be the political winner he thinks.

On Wednesday, Trump raised the idea of abolishing “birthright citizenship” — the concept, enshrined in the Constitution, that anyone born in the United States is automatically an American citizen. 

This came on the heels of a move to indefinitely extend the period for which families can be held in immigration detention facilities. 

Trump also continues to press the case for building a wall on the border with Mexico, while assailing Democrats for being overly lax, as he sees it, on border security.

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“Democrats want Open Borders and Crime! So dangerous for our Country,” he tweeted on Monday. “But we are building a big, beautiful, NEW Wall! I will protect America, the Dems don’t know where to start!”

Trump’s approach to immigration plays well with his base, but there are deep doubts about its political efficacy with the broader electorate.

An Associated Press–NORC poll released on Thursday showed voters giving Trump low marks on immigration. Overall, just 38 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of the issue, while 60 percent disapproved.

Independent voters disapproved of Trump’s approach by a net 29 points, with 32 percent approving and 61 percent disapproving — a big warning sign for the president in relation to his reelection hopes.

The poll was broadly in line with other recent surveys. A CNN–SSRS poll released Tuesday showed Trump’s handling of immigration getting the thumbs-down from 58 percent of respondents with only 37 percent approving.

That’s the kind of data that makes liberals think a focus on immigration going into the 2020 presidential election will be a millstone around Trump’s neck rather than a magic bullet.

“Trump thinks he can use immigration to win reelection,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for more liberal policies. “But while it may mobilize some haters who might not otherwise have voted, it is also likely to mobilize a majority in opposition to his cruelty.”

Sharry noted that Trump focused hard on immigration in the run-up to last year’s midterm elections, including warning of the supposed dangers of a “caravan” of migrants approaching the southern border.

Despite those tactics, Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives, running up a nationwide margin of almost 9 percentage points over Republicans.

Still, it is also true that Trump won election in the first place while campaigning on a very hard line on immigration. 

He defied predictions of political doom that were made from the moment he first descended the elevators in Trump Tower in June 2015 and said that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the United States.

Trump allies insist that immigration will remain a winning issue for him — not only because of his own positions but because, they say, he can paint Democrats as outside the mainstream.

Andrew Surabian, a Republican strategist and former Trump White House official, said it was “an effective issue for him, especially given how far left the Democratic candidates have tracked on immigration.”

At one of the first Democratic debates in Miami in June, eight out of 10 candidates on stage raised their hands to show their support for decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings. There appears to be even stronger support among the 2020 field for providing health care to unauthorized immigrants.

“I don’t see how you can say Republicans are being unfair by saying Democrats support free health care for illegal immigrants. It’s not just AOC and ‘the squad’ saying that,” said Surabian, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez reveals new policies for campaign aides with children Kennedy launches primary challenge against Markey The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam MORE (D-N.Y.) and her congressional allies. “Numerous Democrats running for president, including the presumed front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' Warren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll MORE, have come out in favor of that.”

Proponents of stricter controls on immigration insist that even something as controversial as an effort to remove birthright citizenship could win support.

“I think there is a fundamental gut reaction to you showing up here, you’re having a kid, that kid is an American citizen and we are responsible,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “That seems fundamentally wrong to a lot of people.”

Trump first floated the idea of attempting to change birthright citizenship in an interview with Axios in October 2018. The issue cooled soon afterward, but Trump reinvigorated it again on Wednesday. 

Speaking with reporters at the White House, he called the status quo on the issue “frankly ridiculous.” 

Trump also said that his administration was looking “very, very seriously” at a change. 

But the likelihood of that seems questionable given that most legal scholars — with some exceptions — firmly believe doing so would require altering the Constitution. 

The 14th Amendment states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

As for the popularity of such a move, polling on birthright citizenship is sparse, and answers vary depending upon how the question is phrased.

Sharry, of America’s Voice, asserted that Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship “reeks of desperation. He invoked this in the run-up to the midterms and, 15 months out from the election, he is going there again.”

Democrats reacted with some weariness to Trump’s call. 

“Every time the president gets into trouble, he goes back to the same message,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “He just replays the '16 campaign, only taking it up several notches.”

Democrats believe the tactic won’t work this time. And some independent observers agree, as they look at polls showing pluralities opposed to the president’s proposals on everything from the border wall to family separation.

“His supporters value his consistency but the overall numbers don’t bode terribly well,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. 

Trump’s rhetoric, Reeher added, “just takes all the things that people criticize him for and puts it right there in their face.”

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