By Seung Min Kim
March 14, 2016
The business mogul's use of guest workers and contradictions on his trademark issue are causing consternation.
The candidate of “build that wall” is suddenly having a hard time with one constituency that was fully in his camp: immigration hard-liners.
Alarms went off after Donald Trump openly declared at a GOP debate in Detroit earlier this month that he was changing his position on high-skilled foreign workers, seemingly undermining a key plank of his restrictive immigration platform. Then came a stream of news reports showing how Trump used the same guest-worker programs he now criticizes.
Though Trump recovered somewhat by calling last week for a “pause” in legal immigration — an aggressive stance lauded by hard-liner groups — the GOP front-runner is still coming under scrutiny from tough-on-immigration types on an issue that launched his meteoric rise in the Republican presidential race.
“He hasn’t done a very good job of connecting what he’s been saying in both debates and his other press appearances and in his pep rallies … versus what he wrote in his immigration policy,” Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for Numbers USA, said in an interview on Monday. “I think for us, what is posted on his website is very, very helpful. But the rhetoric hasn’t matched.”
Numbers USA, a national grass-roots group that calls for limiting illegal and legal immigration, had dinged Trump for his comments that seemed to advocate for a boost in both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrant workers at the March 3 debate. The group lowered Trump to a B+ on its scorecard. But after the March 10 debate in Miami, the organization raised his grade to his previous A- rating.
That’s not to say the group still doesn’t have questions about Trump vis-à-vis immigration. Chmielenski said, "Obviously, we don’t condone” Trump’s use of a guest-worker program for foreign students at his hotel in Chicago, the subject of an Associated Press investigation published Monday.
Others who call for stricter immigration laws are also adopting an increasingly critical tone toward Trump.
“He doesn’t know enough about the subject and won’t listen to his own staffers to be able to distill a clear, coherent message,” added Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that calls for more restrictive immigration policies. “In other words, I’m not sure he’s so much flip-flopping as just making this stuff off the top of his head.”
Trump won sustained praise from immigration critics last summer when he rolled out his policy proposal, which was crafted with input from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a top Hill proponent of restricting immigration who has since endorsed Trump for president.
Though his proposal to build a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border gets the most attention, Trump’s policy paper also delves into legal immigration, calling for a requirement to hire U.S. citizens over immigrants for various guest-worker programs and to boost the prevailing wage for employees with an H-1B visa. That program is intended to recruit highly skilled immigrant workers to the United States but has come under increasing scrutiny by Trump and other GOP presidential hopefuls following stories of alleged abuse of the visa by major corporations such as Disney.
“His comfort zone is the wall,” said Krikorian, who also writes for National Review, a conservative publication that has declared itself anti-Trump. “Anything outside his comfort zone, he’s just winging it.”
“I thought it was an excellent paper written by someone in Sessions’ office,” added Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “And it’s apparent that he never read it.”
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.
Another U.S. immigration program criticized in the Trump plan — the J-1 visa for foreign students — was the focus of the AP report Monday that found Trump used the program to hire labor for his Chicago property, primarily at the upscale establishment Terrace Restaurant. The campaign acknowledged Trump’s use of the program to the AP but said that he would reform it as president.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Trump made use of the EB-5 visa, a shortcut to a green card used by wealthy foreign investors, for a Trump property in New Jersey. Following the report, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin asked: How does Trump respond to the debunking of the bogus job-creation math upon which the entire cash-for-citizenship swindle rests? Have any other Trump projects been subsidized by EB-5 China money?”
During the Detroit debate, Trump’s rivals pressured the businessman over his use of a guest-worker program for lower-skilled foreign labor at his luxury club in Palm Beach, Florida — first described in a February report by The New York Times.
“It’s a few months, five months at the most. People don’t want a short-term job,” Trump said in defending his use of foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago during the Detroit debate. “We want to hire as many Americans as we can, but they don’t want part-time, very short part-time jobs.”
Those comments drew criticism from Numbers USA, which lowered its ratings partially based on those remarks.
But Trump returned somewhat to their good graces with his performance in Miami, when he entertained a one- or two-year pause in legal immigration. He also acknowledged his use of the H-1B visa program, though he added: “I shouldn’t be allowed to use it. We shouldn’t have it. Very, very bad for workers.”
Other immigration hard-liners are willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
“Everybody knows that the policy framework that he has developed … was hatched in part with the expertise of Jeff Sessions, and people align with Jeff Sessions,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which also favors stricter immigration policies. “Donald Trump is known for one thing, and that is the ability to assemble a good team and get things done.”
Sessions, who maintains a sterling reputation with groups that favor reducing immigration, acknowledged in an interview last week that Trump’s comments in Detroit initially “caused confusion,” but he credited the campaign for quickly clarifying those remarks. And following the Miami debate, Sessions praised Trump for his “clarity and conviction” as he spoke about immigration.
“This determination to protect American workers from reckless trade and immigration policies will grow the Republican Party and position us to win in November,” Sessions said Saturday in a statement released by the Trump campaign.
It’s premature to say whether Trump voters would turn on the businessman’s muddled comments on immigration. Chmielenski, the Numbers USA official, indicated that members of his group are just as divided as Republican primary voters.
“People who support Trump, they just kind of dismiss everything Trump says on immigration or things that he has done in the past,” Chmielenski said. Those against Trump, he added, “are very critical and have been saying we need to highlight some of these abuses.”
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