Trump's Second Act: Will Rhetoric Outlast the Ruler?
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Biden's Immigration Battle

Trump’s Second Act: Will Rhetoric Outlast the Ruler?

Immigration, the outgoing president’s signal issue, could be his gravy train after he leaves the White House.

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A plaque commemorating President Donald Trumps hangs on the United States-Mexico border wall on December 1, 2020 in Calexico, California. Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.

As Donald Trump’s presidency headed for a crash landing on or before Jan. 20 — amid a second impeachment, resignation or removal via the 25th Amendment — plans were finalized for the divisive chief executive to take one more trip to some familiar, comforting territory: the southern border.

Co-published by Newsweek

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Trump traveled to Alamo, Texas, so he could bask in the construction of a new $15 billion border wall, and the catastrophic MAGA riot that engulfed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 was not going to prevent his victory lap. However with his one term in office finally ending tomorrow, immigration is one obsession above all that he’s certain to keep talking about to anyone who will listen.

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Introduced to the cloying sounds of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” Trump stood beside a stretch of steel barrier that he called “as strong as you can get, as strong as you can have” in an understated speech near the Rio Grande. “When I took office, we inherited a broken, dysfunctional and open border. Everybody was pouring in at will,” he declared. “We reformed our immigration system and achieved the most secure southern border in U.S. history.”

His hardline approach to the topic is at the core of his political identity, as immigration has been to varying degrees for generations of Republican leaders, from Ronald Reagan to John McCain.

But where President George W. Bush in 2007 supported a comprehensive immigration bill that would have balanced border security with a plan to legalize 12 million undocumented workers, Trump began his 2016 campaign with a speech in which he famously declared: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump came into office promising to fight illegal immigration by building a “big, beautiful wall” along 2,000 miles of the U.S. southern border. He has been hostile even to legal immigration, particularly from what he called “shit-hole countries” like Haiti and El Salvador, noting that he would much prefer migrants from Norway.
 


Trump’s rhetoric on immigration will continue to echo through his party’s agenda, while he seems able
to command a committed base of support.


 
“This president has just been unlike any other when it comes to immigration that we’ve seen in the last 50 years,” says Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law and the author of several books on immigration. Trump, he adds, is an outlier even for Republican presidents. “He took rhetoric about immigration to new and to some terrifying levels.”

With Trump now credibly accused of attempting a coup against Congress and President-elect Joe Biden, his future as leader of the GOP is uncertain. Even so, his rhetoric on immigration will continue to echo through his party’s agenda, while he seems able to command a committed base of support fueled by his gift for attracting sensational media coverage and a peculiar brand of outrage.

“The president has changed the Republican Party forever,” says Matthew Tragesser, spokesperson at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration advocacy group. “Any pivot back to meet the demands of the cheap labor/corporate wing of the party will likely make it suffer in the long run.”

*    *    *

The Republican Party has had friction from within about immigration for generations. Pressure from the right wing led even Sen. John McCain, known then to support comprehensive immigration reform, to declare in his 2010 U.S. Senate reelection campaign in Arizona: “Complete the danged fence.”

Trump won’t make the party’s position on immigration any easier, though historically he’s been unreliable as an ideologue. He told Newsmax in 2012 that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s calls for “self-deportation” during his campaign were “maniacal” and “mean-spirited.” Trump suggested the GOP had offered nothing “with respect to people wanting to be wonderful, productive citizens of this country.”
 


“This is definitely a fight for our soul in America.”


 
That rare moment of empathy is unlikely to be repeated, since Trump has already threatened to inflame the midterm elections of 2022. With 34 U.S. Senate seats in play, Trump seems likely to return to his playbook from the final weeks of the 2018 midterms — when he terrified voters with the specter of a “caravan” of Central American migrants heading to the border.

“We’ve got a lot of rough people in those caravans,” Trump said then in warnings that were amplified by Fox News and other conservative media voices. “They are not angels.” Those warnings ended as soon as the election was over, but in Alamo, Trump warned again of southern invaders, and suggested changing the name “caravan” to “‘gravy train,’ because that’s what they’re looking for.”

That kind of rhetoric has also alarmed immigrants already in the U.S., raising fears of harassment and deportation.

During the Trump era, immigrants reacted with genuine terror to his policies, explains Johnson, who compares the atmosphere to anti-Chinese agitation in the U.S. during the late 1800s, which saw violence, discrimination and the adoption of racist laws. “People are afraid to go to the doctor, afraid to go to church, afraid to go to work, take their kids to school … You see people almost at a breaking point. There’s real human damage here.”

*    *    *

In many ways, the lasting impact of the Trump presidency on immigration will be more about message than actual legislative accomplishment. His policies were enacted largely through more than 200 executive orders that are now destined to be methodically reversed by incoming President Joe Biden.
 


“People are afraid to go to the doctor, afraid to go to church, afraid to go to work… There’s real human damage here.”


 
But Trump’s voice will remain. “I don’t think he’s going to fade away,” says Sulma Arias, director of immigrant rights at Community Change, a progressive activist group based in Washington, D.C. “I think it’s going to continue because it helps to motivate and enrage and build the fire in his base that they hope to use for other elections.”

It’s a long way from the Republican establishment of the 1980s, when even conservative icon Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration bill as president. The law strengthened border security but also provided amnesty to undocumented immigrants who had entered before 1982.

That’s the country Arias first encountered as a 13-year-old from El Salvador crossing the border in 1983. Traveling alone, Arias was attempting to reunite with her three older sisters in the U.S. when she was detained at the border.

“I went through that experience, but what I call a miracle to this day, is an immigration officer pulled me aside and said, ‘Get this child to her family,’” Arias recalls. “I still believe in that kind of America, where people can make those decisions and get away from what Trump wants. This is definitely a fight for our soul in America.”

*    *    *

On his way out of office, the Trump administration has added 28 new questions to the U.S. citizenship test, one more gambit “to bring legal immigration closer and closer to the bare minimum,” Ali Noorani, president and chief executive officer of the National Immigration Forum, told ABC News in December.

Trump has also sought during his final days as president to end birthright citizenship, as established in the 14th Amendment, calling it “this crazy policy.” He’s threatened to sign an executive order to that end, but any action would be at most symbolic and short-lived, as it would be in direct conflict with the U.S. Constitution, which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States.”

Most of his fellow Republicans have had no objections to these actions, demonstrating the lasting mark Trump has had on a party that once was in some bipartisan agreement with Democrats that a flow of immigrants was good for the U.S. With the former president promising to be an ongoing disrupting force within the GOP, a shift back to normal is unlikely.

“It’s going to be difficult for Republicans to return to the consensus on legal immigration being good for the country because Trump is continuing to motivate the base against it,” says Jessica Bolter, an associate analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “We’re not dealing with the same Republican Party that was willing to be a player on comprehensive immigration reform in the first years of this decade. It’s going to be a whole different environment.”


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