The Memo: Could deepening border crisis help Trump?

The Memo: Could deepening border crisis help Trump?
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE is adopting an even harder line than before on immigration and asylum-seekers, an issue he shows no signs of shying away from heading into the 2020 election.

The president has one political advantage as he presses his controversial case — an increasing number of people who believe there is a border crisis.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that 35 percent of respondents consider the situation at the southern border a “crisis.” A further 45 percent consider it “a serious problem but not a crisis,” while only 18 percent say it is not serious.

Concern about the gravity of the situation is crossing party lines. Nearly one-quarter of Democrats, 24 percent, now consider the situation a crisis, up from just 7 percent in January.

Trump allies insist that, politically speaking, this is good news for the president, ratcheting up pressure on Democrats to shift away from blanket opposition to his policies.

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“When you are getting into 80 percent of the American people thinking it’s either a crisis or serious, the Democrats need to change their tune and work with the president,” said David Bossie, who served as Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016.

On Monday, Trump released a new memo preparing to charge asylum-seekers application fees and remove from some their right to work while their cases are adjudicated.

The announcement was met with instant disdain from Democrats, with 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro calling it “truly sickening” in a tweet.

But Bossie asserted that the electorate was coming to realize that Trump had been right in his warnings about a porous and insecure southern border.

“The president has been telling the American people the truth about America’s immigration crisis for the past several years,” he said, “and the Democrats have been lying to the American people because — in their opinion — it was going to be politically advantageous to them.”

Trump himself faces considerable hurdles on the issue — not least that his hard-line approach seems to alienate more people than it pleases.

Overall, the Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 39 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of immigration but that 57 percent disapproved.

Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky described Trump’s proposed changes as “unconscionable,” though she added that opinions about the president and immigration were so fixed, on both sides, that the latest controversy about asylum policies was unlikely to shift them.

“To members of his base, he was absolutely right to effectively doom people fleeing for their lives. For the rest of us, it just crystallizes his meanness,” she said.

The broadening sense that there is a crisis at the border does alter the political dynamics, however.

On other occasions when the immigration issue has flared up, Democrats have argued that Trump and his allies were confecting a crisis that did not really exist.

One example came when the president and his media allies talked up the supposed dangers from a migrant caravan from Central America in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.

Following the election, in which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, Trump’s rhetoric tailed off — as did coverage of the issue in conservative media.

However, in recent months, the Trump administration has been forced to grapple with a spike in the number of immigrants attempting to illegally cross the southern border.

The total number of apprehensions of unauthorized or inadmissible people at the border totaled more than 100,000 people in March, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data. It was the largest monthly figure recorded since 2007.

The sharpness of the increase has also drawn attention. Total apprehensions, which had declined to fewer than 20,000 for three successive months early in the Trump administration, rose to approximately 60,000 each month from October 2018 to January 2019. 

Apprehensions then rose to more than 76,000 in February and more than 103,000 in March.

The increase has been driven by the number of migrants traveling as part of a family. In March, 53,077 of the people apprehended were members of a family unit, according to the CBP. That figure was up from 36,531 in February and from 24,189 in January.

"We are truly in a crisis," Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under former President Obama, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" in March.

Trump has argued repeatedly that serious changes must be made — and is widely perceived to have forced out the previous Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenFour heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy MORE, over frustrations that she was not wholly committed to the tough approach he wanted.

While Trump allies such as Bossie insist that Democrats must work with Trump, Roginsky asserted the president had no serious interest in any solution.

“He has got a message — and a presidency — grounded entirely in fear,” she said. “So working on difficult public policy issues and resolving them would take away the strategy of demonizing the ‘other’ that has served him and his base so effectively.”

But even independent observers say there is no way Trump will soften his line now, since his position on immigration is such an integral part of his political image.

“He is deeply dug in on this,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “There are things that candidates and office-holders are particularly known for and they stake their identities on. He is clearly one of them, on this issue.”

Reeher added that the broadening consensus that there was a border crisis would oblige Democrats to offer some kind of response.

“I think it does force them to come up with an alternative plan to sit next to his plans,” he said.

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