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Donald Trump and immigration, explained

Donald Trump led a revolution on immigration within the GOP. He can’t stop it now.

Donald Trump makes a campaign appearance in Laredo, Texas, in 2015. Matthew Busch/Getty

Donald Trump, equipped with a new campaign team and a national media desperate for a competitive horserace, is set to reboot his campaign this week with a return to the issue that launched him to political superstardom: immigration.

The question is exactly what sort of reboot it will be.

The thing to understand about Trump is that immigration is not just a key issue for him; it is the thing that won him the nomination, it is the thing on which he has been remarkably consistent over the years, and it is the thing that may be his lasting impact on the party — even if he loses the presidency in November.

Trump talked about immigration in a completely new way. While his predecessors in the Republican Party had drawn a sharp distinction between legal and unauthorized immigration, and focused on the idea that immigrants competed with citizens for jobs, Trump portrayed immigrants — particularly Latinos and Muslims — as threats to Americans’ safety and American values.

All of which makes it particularly odd that Trump’s own campaign has spent the weekend before “immigration week” signaling to political elites that the candidate might change one of his signature policy proposals: deporting the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the US, as well as, possibly, their US-born children.

The hints have been subtle — designed for people who want Trump to pivot to a more “sensible” immigration policy, or for those who simply believe that Trump doesn’t actually believe anything to hear what they want to hear. And even as his campaign told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday that whether Trump still wanted mass deportation was “to be determined,” the campaign’s first ad of the general election cycle recycled some of the darkest anti-immigrant themes and footage from his primary campaign.

But still, it’s not typical for the Trump campaign to tell elites what they want to hear at all. The immigration two-step was a characteristic move of the Mitt Romney-era GOP — the GOP that Trump gained as an enthusiastic following by showing up as hypocrites.

Immigration remade Donald Trump, turning him from a B-list celebrity into a major party presidential nominee, and Trump in turn is remaking the politics of immigration. But Trump doesn’t own the immigration issue or the movement he’s galvanized. His campaign may think it can use “immigration week” to finesse Trump’s own positions, but Trumpism — as it will outlast his candidacy — isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Is Trump planning to use “immigration week” to galvanize his base — or to throw it all away?

When Trump overhauled his campaign’s leadership team earlier this month, it made perfect sense that they’d start the next phase of the Trump campaign with an “immigration week.” After all, Trump’s new campaign CEO Steve Bannon (as chair of Breitbart News) actually helped pave the way for Trumpian anti-immigration nationalism.

The new team was brought in to “let Trump be Trump”; what better way to do that than by returning to the issue that started it all, and the one on which Trump has always had the firmest footing?

But over the weekend before “immigration week,” two very strange things happened. First, members of Trump’s “Hispanic advisory group” left a private Trump Tower meeting believing — and telling reporters — that Trump was not only going to soften his stance on deportations, but was considering allowing unauthorized immigrants in the US to get legalized.

Some attendees told Univision that Trump was planning to announce a new immigration plan that would grant immigrants legal status without citizenship.

Others told BuzzFeed News that the campaign was merely considering a “task force” to look at how to deal with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in a “humane” manner. (In the past, Trump has said that mass deportation would be done “humanely.”) To the members of the Hispanic advisory group, who are all Trump supporters, this sounded like the beginning of a new openness to some sort of legalization “short of amnesty.”

In a statement after the advisory group meeting, the campaign denied that its immigration stance had changed. (Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a major Trump supporter and apparent influence on Trump’s thinking, also denies to Breitbart that any change in policy is taking place.)

Then, on Sunday morning, Trump’s campaign manager hinted that it would:

Most of Trump’s supporters don’t read Univision or watch CNN’s Sunday morning political talk show. The face the campaign is showing the general public hasn’t changed: Trump spent much of a Virginia rally on Saturday talking about immigrants, and the campaign ad he released last week recycles primary-campaign footage of an immigrant “invasion.”

It’s pretty typical for Republican campaigns to take a hard line on immigration with the base, then signify to political elites that they don’t really mean it. (This is exactly the play Scott Walker tried to make in the primaries.)

But what’s typical for Republicans is anything but typical for the Trump campaign. Trump made a splash by enthusiastically telling Americans concerned about immigration that their fears were legitimate, without varnish and without weaseling. In doing so, he showed up Republicans like Walker as feckless — people who wouldn’t stand firm in speaking truth to elites.

It’s not clear that a pivot on immigration — or even just a hinted future pivot — will actually alienate Trump supporters, many of whom are fiercely loyal. But it would be a substantial blow to his core message: that he is a brutally honest man who doesn’t feel the need to moderate for political correctness.

Immigration delivered the nomination to Trump

It’s now tough to remember that when Donald Trump asserted that "murderers" and "rapists" were coming over the US–Mexico border during his campaign launch, it was just one in a barrage of outrageous lines. It only became the centerpiece of his presidential campaign — the message he's ridden all the way to the Republican nomination — when he realized he had struck a nerve.

He embraced it because liberals hated it: When Robert Costa of the Washington Post asked him in mid-July how he settled on immigration as a central campaign issue, Trump replied "they gave it to me" — "they" being the media outlets and Latinos who started raising a fuss. But he's stuck with it, and it's helped win him the nomination, because many conservative voters love it.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The message he found won a real and intense emotional response from some groups of Americans — powering him to the top of the Republican primary race. His rivals in that race almost uniformly at one time or another supported some version of “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR). This was a long-time legislative concept that sought to reconcile the interests of long-time undocumented residents of the United States with the priorities of the business community and a public desire to limit future flows of unauthorized migrants.

Most leading Republicans got off that bus years ago in the face of backlash from the grassroots base. But they largely continued to think of the issue in the terms defined by the CIR concept — an economics-heavy worldview that frontloaded questions about impacts on business and the labor market.

Trump likes to say that no one was talking about immigration before he entered the race. That isn't true. But the way he talked about it resonated much more deeply than anything his rivals could muster.

Trump made immigration exciting to conservatives

Americans' feelings about immigration are tricky: Some people are categorically anti-immigrant, others care a great deal about the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, and a large share judge immigrants on how close they are to an imagined "traditional American culture."

Before Trump, Republicans talked about immigration in terms of policy. They found messages that were acceptable to their conservative base, but struggled to find messages that excite them.

Trump’s political success, to the extent that it’s existed, is grounded in finding a language that speaks about the immigration issue in a way that resonates with what people who are worried about immigration actually worry about.

To understand how that works, it’s useful to examine the experimental social science that reveals how Americans really feel about immigration. In one important type of study, for example, researchers mix together different hypothetical immigrant traits — a legal Mexican laborer, an unauthorized European student — and ask people the same questions about these hypothetical individuals. That's allowed researchers to disaggregate feelings about immigrants from feelings about whatever ethnic group Americans picture when they think of the word "immigrant."

One key finding of this research is about 12 percent of Americans are opposed to any type of immigration, legal or illegal. Pre-Trump, most GOP politicians drew a sharp distinction founded on legal status. One key exception to that was Sen. Jeff Sessions, who’s helped Trump write an immigration platform that massively curtails legal immigration.

American University’s Matthew Wright found that another group, about 20 percent of the population, really is focused on illegal immigrants as part of a larger fanaticism about rule-following. Saying that it’s very important to pay parking tickets, for example, is very predictive of harsh views on immigration.

These people likely delight in Trump’s larger “law and order” campaign message and are particularly well-primed to like Trump's message that immigrants are violent criminals: After all, they assume that immigrants here without papers have already demonstrated that they don't respect the law, so what’s to stop them from terrorizing American communities?

A large share of white Americans, Wright finds, don’t really care about legal status at all. Their evaluation of immigrants focused on other factors. In his experiment asking whether a given immigrant should stay or go, an unauthorized Christian immigrant fared better than a legal Muslim one. An unauthorized immigrant from France fared better than a legal immigrant from Mexico, but an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico fared better than a legal immigrant from Somalia.

"The Silent Majority Stands With Trump." Keith Bedford / The Boston Globe via Getty

People who join Trump in being very alarmed about perfectly legal refugees from Syria but not so worried about whether Melania Trump had the proper work permits in the 1990s fit into this category.

Even the non-Trump Republicans who took the harshest line on immigration policy — Rick Santorum and (sometimes) Scott Walker — addressed it in economic terms: Conservative voters are worried about American jobs. But the thing that Trump stumbled upon is that Americans are less worried about American jobs than they are about American culture, or at least so far as they would define it.

Trump has repeatedly accused the government of Mexico (and possibly other countries) of deliberately sending its worst people to immigrate to the United States. That's much closer to the heart of American anxiety. To say that he’s gone beyond even the most hard-core conservatives on this is an understatement.

Trump doesn’t have many policies — but he definitely has immigration policies

Trump has a well-deserved reputation for being a politician who is not particularly invested in white papers and policy specifics. It’s crucial to understand that immigration has been, throughout his campaign, an exception to that rule. His website’s issues section lists only seven issues — one of them is Immigration Reform and another is Paying for the Wall.

It’s easy to dismiss the wall, in particular, as meaningless bluster. But Trump really does have a fairly detailed white paper about how he plans to coerce Mexico into paying for the construction of a border wall.

He also has a detailed and specific immigration policy reform agenda that reflects the influence of people who, whether you agree with them or not, are certainly well-informed about the details. That starts with Sessions, who’s currently the head of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, and who was attacking legal and unauthorized immigration back when most of his party was looking for ways to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Jeff Sessions Donald Trump
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions onstage with Donald Trump at a 2015 rally in Alabama.
(Mark Wallheiser/Getty)

At the beginning of this year, a staffer from the senator's office joined Trump's campaign. Sessions is almost certainly the only Washington insider Trump trusts. And Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that his loyalty to people can get in the way of making what other people might consider the best deal.

Let in Sessions, and you let in an established network of people and interests who have been pushing for years for greater border enforcement and a tougher approach to unauthorized immigrants who are already here.

Trump has also received the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council‚ the union representing Border Patrol agents. The union is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which is hardly a Republican interest group, but it has been vocally opposed to the Obama administration's immigration policy, which it feels ties agents' hands and keeps them from enforcing the law against unauthorized immigrants.

Trump wants to make life so difficult for unauthorized immigrants they'd leave on their own

Trump’s official immigration plan would triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the interior of the US, and suggests he would give them a much freer hand to track down and deport unauthorized immigrants than the Obama administration has allowed. But with the exception of people caught at the border and those convicted of crimes — both of whom are already "deportation priorities" under the Obama administration — his plan says little about deportation.

The Trump administration would, Congress permitting, confiscate any money sent by unauthorized immigrants back to their relatives. Trump's proposal claims that Mexico got $22 billion in remittances from "illegal immigrants" last year; in fact, that's the amount of remittances sent to Mexico period — from legal immigrants, unauthorized immigrants, and even Mexican emigrants in countries other than the US (though the last group only sent 2 percent of remittances). This raises the question of how Trump would differentiate between legal and unauthorized immigrants' remittances.

Moneygram booth for sending remittances

Trump also wants to ban unauthorized immigrants from receiving tax credits, most of which are supposed to assist their US-citizen children. However, he also wants to get around that problem by banning birthright citizenship (presumably by altering the 14th Amendment or getting the Supreme Court to overturn its 1898 decision that codified it), meaning the US-born children of unauthorized immigrants wouldn't be citizens anyway. Like Jeb Bush, he wants to require all employers to use the E-Verify system to check employees' status before hiring them — which, in theory, would make it impossible for unauthorized immigrants to get jobs.

Altering the 14th Amendment is a pretty tall order, but most of the rest of these could be done — though it's not clear how effective they'd be. Proposals to prevent unauthorized immigrants from getting tax credits are pretty routinely brought up in Congress, and would be fairly straightforward to implement. It's not clear how effective E-Verify would be if it were implemented while 8 million people are already working in the US without papers — states that have tried it haven't seen much success with compliance.

It's unclear if attrition through enforcement would work, because it has not been tried at a federal scale before. It would definitely make it much harder to live in the US as an unauthorized immigrant. But there isn't clear evidence suggesting it would make people more likely to leave.

Trump would sharply reduce legal immigration — especially high-skilled immigration

On the campaign trail and at the Republican convention, Trump's objections to immigrants have focused on his view that they're prone to committing crimes — not, as some of his Republican competitors have emphasized, on the taking of American jobs. But his platform focuses heavily on economic concerns as well.

Rhetorically, he focuses on "low-wage workers" being brought to the US by greedy employers. But his specific proposals are squarely aimed at the program Sessions has made his committee's biggest target: the H1-B visa for "high-skilled" immigrant workers.

Trump would raise the "prevailing wage" that H1-B workers must be paid, to make it less appealing for employers to hire them. And he would require all employers to "hire American workers first" before seeking visas for immigrant labor. (Some employers seeking visas have to attest that they've jumped through certain hoops to recruit Americans before petitioning for the visa; it's not clear if Trump wants to make this requirement universal, or implement something stricter.)

Perhaps the most radical idea in Trump's proposals to limit legal immigration is something he calls "immigration moderation" — a moratorium on giving any green cards to "foreign workers abroad" for a period of time, to force American employers to hire unemployed Americans in the US. Trump doesn't specify if he would put a moratorium on all green cards, or just those issued for employment.

If Trump just wants to stop giving people green cards for the purpose of working in the US, that wouldn't be radical at all. It'd just be another minor tweak aimed at high-skilled workers. Very few people living abroad get employment-based green cards right off the bat, and they tend to be exceptionally skilled workers and rich investors.

Real estate EB-5 recruiters China
A convention in China where US firms seek to recruit investors among Chinese citizens hoping for green cards.

But if Trump is calling for a moratorium on all new green cards, thus preventing anyone from immigrating to the US as a permanent resident, he'd essentially put a freeze on family-based immigration to the US. That would definitely stifle the most common way that "low-wage," low-skilled immigrants come into the country. It would put a huge dent in immigration from Mexico and the Philippines, as well as China and India — all countries where backlogs for green cards are so long that relatives have to wait years or decades before getting them. And it would basically stop the only line that exists for millions of people to get into the United States legally.

That would almost certainly increase unauthorized immigration at least somewhat. Not all immigrants would necessarily decide to come illegally instead — to scale the border wall, brave mandatory detention, and risk getting caught at any time by an ICE agent or E-Verify. But some of them would likely feel they had no other choice.

Trump’s latest idea: “extreme vetting” and ideological tests

Over time, Trump has only increased the range and depth of his immigration policy proposals — sharpening his bluntest ideas so that they could more easily pass constitutional muster.

The most recent update came in an ostensibly security-focused mid-August speech that proposed both “extreme vetting” of would-be entrants to the United States, and a new series of ideological tests to weed out undesirable migrants.

These are different ideas, but rhetorically he did his best to blur the difference between the two.

What Trump actually proposed, according to his speech text, was this:

  1. Additional security screening (Trump called it “extreme vetting”) for anyone seeking to enter the US — permanently or temporarily, short-term or long-term, immigrant, tourist, or student.
  2. An “ideological screening test” for people who wanted to immigrate permanently to the United States.

On the face of it, the first of these is a national-security policy: It’s supposed to prevent people from entering the US to do it harm. The second is an immigration policy: It’s supposed to ensure, just as centuries of immigration policy have ensured, that only “suitable” people enter the US.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

But Trump could barely talk about one without talking about the other. He emphasized that he was concerned with attitudes “beyond terrorism,” while also expressing concern with the “hundreds of thousands” of people the US admitted from the Middle East on temporary visas each year.

According to the text of Trump’s speech, the candidate proposed admitting “only those who we expect to flourish in our country — and to embrace a tolerant American society — should be issued immigrant visas.” But in delivering the speech, Trump said “should be issued visas” — which, since there are 10 million nonimmigrant visas issued every year and only 1 million immigrant visas, casually expands the population who’d be tested by about a factor of 10.

This was probably a reflection of the fact that Donald Trump doesn’t understand immigration policy well enough to know that the difference between “visas” and “immigrant visas” is really important. But it was also a way for him to assert that cultural assimilation is a national-security priority: that when people live in the US who don’t share our values, it makes us less safe.

That’s why, when he talked about terrorism, he talked about “immigrants or the children of immigrants.” That’s why he’s routinely claimed that second- and third-generation Muslim Americans “don’t assimilate.” In the Trumpian worldview, to allow someone who doesn’t agree 100 percent with the American way of life to set foot in the United States is an unforced error.

The immigration debate will never be the same

Regardless of what Trump says about immigration over the next 10 weeks, he is looking likely to lose in November. And if he does, the Republican Party will almost certainly resolve to never again allow itself to be led by a candidate as undisciplined and unprofessional as Trump. Real politicians who understand how to court donors and build coalitions and spin the press have real value.

But the immigration ideas that Trump stumbled upon are politically potent, and won’t vanish even if Trump himself retreats from the political arena.

The issue, as framed by Trump and as fervently embraced by the Republican Party base, isn’t the specific contours of visa programs or exactly what hoops a long-time unauthorized resident of the United States might have to jump through to receive permission to stay.

A Trump supporter carries a sign saying "Build the wall" Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Rather, the issue is American identity and American security with threats to the former defined as threats to the latter. Trump’s campaign has proven the potency of this brand of politics in a way that more conventional, more professional politicians have already noticed — see the mainstreaming of anti-refugee politics even while the GOP primary was under way — and will continue to remember in a post-Trump party. The campaign has also served to push the most immigration-sympathetic Republicans out of the party while pulling the most immigration-skeptical Democrats and independents into it with a lasting impact on the balance of power inside both parties.

The underlying demographics of the United States are changing in profound ways, and those changes don’t sit well with everybody. For years, those changes were widely discussed in the media but not addressed by the political system. Trump, for better or worse, has articulated fears that research shows have long been present, and it’s worked for him. He may go away, but his key issue won’t.