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Eli Kantor is a labor, employment and immigration law attorney. He has been practicing labor, employment and immigration law for more than 36 years. He has been featured in articles about labor, employment and immigration law in the L.A. Times, Business Week.com and Daily Variety. He is a regular columnist for the Daily Journal. Telephone (310)274-8216; eli@elikantorlaw.com. For more information, visit beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com and and beverlyhillsemploymentlaw.com


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

How the GOP’s rightward shift on immigration helps explain Trump’s primary success

One key reason for Donald Trump’s dominance in the GOP presidential race may be hiding in plain sight: Even compared to 2016, the Republican electorate has moved sharply to the right on immigration. That shift on one of Trump’s signature issues has tightened his grip on the party. Amid widespread discontent over President Joe Biden’s management of the border, the overall electorate is moving rightward on immigration too, polls show. If Trump wins the nomination, the question will be whether swing voters are willing to move as far as he’s proposing with his explicit promise to pursue a militarized door-to-door mass deportation drive, including the construction of detention camps, to speed the removal of more undocumented immigrants than the US has ever tried to deport at one time. Both Biden and Trump are planning to visit the border on Thursday – an early indication of how large a role immigration will play in a likely general election rematch between them. For now, there’s no question that hardening GOP attitudes on immigration have been critical to Trump’s strong performance through the early primaries. In 2016, as I wrote at the time, exit polls asked GOP voters in 20 states whether “illegal immigrants working in the US” should be “offered legal status” or “deported to [their] home country.” In every state except Alabama and Mississippi, less than half of 2016 GOP primary voters said those in the US illegally should be deported, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. But already this year, a majority of GOP primary voters in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two states where the question was asked, have said that most undocumented immigrants should be deported, the exit polls found. In New Hampshire, the results virtually flipped from 2016. Then, 56% of GOP primary voters said undocumented immigrants should be offered legal status; in last month’s primary, 55% said they should be deported. In South Carolina, the share of GOP primary voters who said undocumented immigrants should be deported soared from 44% in 2016 to 66% on Saturday. What’s more, the exit polls found, the share of Republican voters who described immigration as the most important issue facing the country doubled from 2016 to 2024 in New Hampshire, more than doubled in the Iowa caucuses, and nearly quadrupled in South Carolina. Immigration ranked as the most important issue for most GOP primary voters in South Carolina, and finished close behind the economy in both Iowa and New Hampshire. “I hear time and time again in focus groups, among Republicans, among independents, even with Biden voters, they will tell you that Donald Trump had the immigration problem handled,” said Jim McLaughlin, a pollster for Trump’s 2024 campaign. “When Joe Biden and the Democrats tell you, ‘Oh we need comprehensive immigration reform,’ which sounds great, and might poll test well with their base, most Americans will tell you, ‘No, immigration was solved under Donald Trump, even though I may not be voting for him and might not even like him.’” Every GOP candidate in the 2024 presidential race offered a hardline agenda on immigration. (Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s last remaining rival for the nomination, has also pledged large-scale deportations of migrants allowed in the country under Biden.) But the increased focus and rightward tilt of Republican voters on the issue is clearly boosting Trump. Fully three-fourths of GOP primary voters who want to deport undocumented immigrants backed him in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to the exit polls. (In each state, that was a big increase from 2016, when Trump won about half the voters who supported deportation.) In both of those states this year, Trump won about four-fifths of voters who called immigration the country’s most important problem, and in Iowa, those voters preferred him over Haley by almost 6-1. Even in 2016, Trump’s support was disproportionately concentrated among voters who took the most conservative immigration positions, according to my calculations at the time with my colleague Leah Askarinam. Though pro-deportation voters constituted a majority of all GOP voters in just two states, they provided a majority of Trump’s votes everywhere except New York and Wisconsin, the exit polls found. Now Trump’s strength among the Republicans most concerned about immigration is paying increasing dividends because of a powerful compounding effect: compared to 2016, he is winning a bigger share of the growing portion of GOP voters who support deportation. As a result of these twin movements, nearly four-fifths of Trump’s votes in New Hampshire came from voters who supported deportation; in South Carolina, those voters comprised over four-fifths of his coalition. By contrast, in 2016, the largest share of his primary support that came from voters who backed deportation was 67% in Alabama; only in three other states did deportation advocates provide even 60% of his vote. McLaughlin said Trump’s dominance among the GOP primary voters most concerned about immigration encapsulates a broader reason for his early success: widespread satisfaction among Republicans about his record in office. “The court cases [against him] are overrated for why Trump did as well as he did” in the first GOP contests, McLaughlin said. “[Voters] thought he was right on the issues they cared about most – the economy, national security, immigration, crime. And he looks better and better to them on most of these issues compared to Joe Biden’s failures.” Beyond the exit polls, an array of other recent polling results measure how much of the GOP coalition has coalesced behind hardline immigration positions. The share of Republicans who support building a wall along the US-Mexico border – one of Trump’s trademark policies – exceeded 80% both in a January Quinnipiac University national poll and the annual American Values Survey conducted last fall by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. That’s a significant increase from the share of Republicans who backed the wall in 2016, notes Robert P. Jones, the PRRI’s president and founder. In the PRRI poll, over three-fourths of Republicans also said they supported building “deterrents such as walls, floating barriers in rivers, and razor wire to prevent immigrants from entering the country illegally, even if they endanger or kill some people.” Seven-in-ten Republicans in that survey said they wanted stricter limits on the number of legal immigrants allowed into the US. In a national Marquette Law School poll released last week, two-thirds of Republicans said they strongly supported “deporting immigrants who are living in the United States illegally back to their home countries,” according to previously unpublished results provided by Charles Franklin, the poll’s director. In PRRI’s annual polling, the share of Republicans who support deportation has been rising and the portion that backs legalization for undocumented immigrants has been falling over recent years – the same pattern evident in the early 2024 exit polls. All of these policy positions are rooted in deep concerns among Republican voters both about the immediate situation at the border and the long-term impact of immigrants on US society. In the national Marquette poll, over four-fifths of Republicans strongly agreed that “The Biden administration’s border policies have created a crisis of uncontrolled illegal migration into the country.” In a national Gallup Poll released early Tuesday morning, nearly three-fifths of Republicans called immigration the most important problem facing the country; that was up dramatically from less than two-fifths just last month. In a separate question, an overwhelming 90% of Republicans agreed that “large numbers of immigrants entering the United States illegally” is a critical threat to US vital interests. That was an increase from 84% last year. Republicans are also overwhelmingly negative about the longer-term impact of immigration on American culture. In the PRRI poll, over 7-in-10 Republicans said the growing number of newcomers from other countries “threatens traditional American customs and values,” far more than believed that immigrants strengthen American society. Most dramatically, a CBS/YouGov poll in January found that 72% of Republicans agreed with Trump’s statement that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” – an assertion that many historians have pointed out echoes language used by Adolf Hitler. The share of Republicans who said they agreed with that statement spiked to 82% when they were told that it came from Trump. The broader electorate largely shares Republicans’ concern about the immediate situation at the border, if not as intensely. In the Gallup Poll, the share of independents who consider “large numbers of immigrants entering the United States illegally” a major threat to vital US interests jumped from 40% last year to a 54% majority now, and even the share of Democrats who expressed that concern rose from about 2-in-10 to nearly 3-in-10. In the Marquette poll, nearly two-thirds of independents and even more than 2-in-5 Democrats either strongly or somewhat agreed that Biden’s policies “have created a crisis of uncontrolled illegal migration into the country.” Biden is clearly bearing the weight of those negative verdicts. In polling, his approval rating on the border and immigration is often lower than on any other issue. In the new Marquette survey, more than twice as many voters said they trusted Trump than Biden to handle immigration and the border. That was the former president’s biggest advantage on any of the seven issues the poll tested. But when it comes to the long-term impact of immigrants on American society, the broader public’s view is not nearly as negative as the assessment among Republicans. In the PRRI polling, for instance, only about 2-in-5 independents and just 1-in-5 Democrats agreed that the growing number of immigrants threatens traditional American customs and values. Over three-fifths of independents and more than three-fourths of Democrats in the CBS poll rejected Trump’s assertion that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of America. Over the years, most Americans have consistently supported a path to citizenship for long-time undocumented immigrants who have not broken the law. Those attitudes raise questions about whether Trump, if he wins the nomination, can sustain public support for the militant immigration ideas that are now helping him consolidate his lead in the primaries. At a CNN town hall last spring, Trump strongly implied that as president he would restore his policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border – an idea he was forced to abandon amid an intense public backlash in his first term. Trump has also repeatedly promised to pursue the largest domestic deportation program ever. Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration adviser, has fleshed out that promise in several interviews. Speaking last fall to the far-right activist Charlie Kirk, Miller said a second Trump administration would dispatch massive deportation forces, including National Guard troops from sympathetic red states, to “go around the country arresting illegal immigrants in large-scale raids”; build “large-scale staging grounds near the border, most likely in Texas,” to serve as detention camps for migrants designated for deportation; and then constantly operate flights to return migrants to their home countries. Miller has said the goal of these efforts would be to remove as many as 10 million undocumented immigrants. That’s vastly more than the roughly 250,000 deported under the model Trump often cites: the “operation wetback” program named for a racial slur for Mexican Americans implemented under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. In a conference call with reporters last week, several Democratic pollsters and immigration advocacy group leaders predicted that as Trump’s plans for the border become better known, he will face a backlash from the public, especially Hispanics. “The question is how much of this information is front and center in February in voters’ minds, and not that much of it is,” said Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster and political scientist at UCLA. Hispanic voters, like all voters, want more order and stability at the border, Barreto and Celinda Lake, another Democratic pollster, argued on the call. But when they hear the specifics of Trump’s mass deportation plan, as well as his rhetoric claiming that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the nation, “they are absolutely disgusted by it,” Barreto said. Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, said that advocacy groups “unequivocally” will air advertisements for Hispanic voters in such pivotal swing states as Arizona and Nevada, targeting Trump’s rhetoric and mass deportation agenda. The victory of Democrat Tom Suozzi earlier this month in the New York special election to succeed expelled Republican Rep. George Santos has boosted Democratic confidence that voters still prefer a balanced approach to immigration over the policies that Trump is offering. Suozzi promised to restore order at the border, but in his advertising also explicitly promised to “open paths to citizenship for those willing to follow the rules.” He ran as a kind of Bill Clinton-era Democrat, rejecting polarized “either/or” solutions and promising a “both/and” approach that married the priorities of conservatives (border security) and liberals (legal status for young people brought to the US illegally by their parents). Immigration almost certainly still will be a negative for Biden in November. But Democrats from the White House on down believe that “both/and” message can help them limit the damage, especially after House Republicans, at Trump’s behest, killed the bipartisan Senate border bill. That legislation would have significantly toughened border enforcement and tightened the asylum process, but not implemented the most aggressive policies Trump is espousing, such as requiring asylum-seekers to “remain in Mexico” while their cases are decided, or his promise of mass deportation. Many Democrats believe Biden, in next week’s State of the Union address, will announce plans to implement some of the bill’s tougher enforcement provisions through administrative action. Biden might preview some of his ideas in his visit on Thursday to Brownsville – his first return to the border since his only previous trip as president in January 2023. McLaughlin said Democrats are deluding themselves if they believe that highlighting a rejected legislative plan, or pledging new policies now, will erase voters’ concerns about the trends at the border under Biden. “I think it is going to get worse for him, until he solves the problem,” he said. Amid these conflicting currents, immigration may encapsulate the larger dynamic of the increasingly likely Biden-Trump rematch. As on many fronts, most Americans are dissatisfied with Biden’s record on this issue. But that doesn’t guarantee a majority will be willing to accept the alternative Trump is offering. On immigration, as on many other issues, the voters’ decision may tilt on how they weigh their discontent with Biden’s performance against their unease about Trump’s inclinations and intentions. For more information, visit us at https://www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com/.

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