Trump Up Against a Wall

Foreigners who enter the U.S. legally but overstay their visas, a number believed by immigration authorities to comprise about 40% of the undocumented population, obviously won’t be deterred by a wall. Illegal entries, which peaked during the final year of the Clinton administration, are at their lowest levels in two decades.

Any number of factors might explain the trend. Mexico’s birthrates have declined and its economy has improved, producing fewer young men to head north in search of work. Border patrols increased significantly under President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, which made illicit crossings more expensive and dangerous. Finally, the Great Recession and weak recovery have made the U.S. economically less attractive. Since 2009, more Mexican nationals have exited than have migrated here, according to census data. Mr. Trump, in other words, spends a lot of time explaining how he will build a wall to address a problem that has been diminishing without one.

Neither Mr. Trump nor his core supporters seem particularly interested in these details. What matters to them is that the promised wall symbolizes seriousness about tackling a broken immigration system, which many Trump backers believe has added to their economic distress. The real-estate mogul has calculated that the immigration issue will help him win the nomination, a calculation that many GOP leaders fear may be correct but recklessly shortsighted—hence the concerted Republican efforts to find an alternative candidate.

Last week, five states—Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio—held Republican primary elections, and exit polls showed Mr. Trump winning by at least 2-to-1 among voters who said immigration was their top issue. But that profile fit just 10% of Republican primary voters. Public opinion polling conducted by the Pew Research Center shows overall support for a border fence holding steady at 46% in 2007, 2011 and 2015—the three times it has surveyed the question in the past decade. Lots of people say they want a wall built, but very few people vote on that issue.

Immigration restriction is well-represented on talk radio and cable news, yet polling has repeatedly shown that large majorities of Democrats, Republican and independents support allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the country if certain conditions, such as passing a criminal-background check, are met. Last week’s GOP primary exit polls were no different.

“On the issue of whether illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be deported—a position Mr. Trump repeats nearly daily—a majority of the voters in all five states disagreed, choosing instead to offer illegal immigrants legal status,” reported The Wall Street Journal. “The margin favoring legal status ranged from 11 percentage points in Missouri to 18 points in Ohio.” Immigration hard-liners welcome Mr. Trump’s tough stance, but those hard-liners aren’t even speaking for a majority of Republican primary voters, let alone a majority of Republicans or a majority of all voters who will decide the next president.

Before Marco Rubio quit the race, Democratic strategists regularly identified him as the candidate that Hillary Clinton feared most in the election. Mrs. Clinton, it was thought, would have a tough time explaining that she, and not the fresh-faced 40-something running against her, better represented America’s bright future. Mr. Rubio also would have threatened the Democrats’ post-Bush dominance among Latino and Asian voting blocs in the past two presidential elections. Mr. Trump is unlikely to pose such a threat. In two new polls, one from CBS/New York Times and another from CNN, Mr. Trump trails both Mrs. Clinton and Bernie Sanders in head-to-head contests by double digits.

Mr. Rubio took his immigration cues from President Reagan, who worked to expand the party’s appeal and once said, “Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.” Mr. Trump has chosen to channel President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” deportation effort in the 1950s, but at least the Eisenhower administration coupled increased border enforcement with a bracero program that dramatically increased the legal ways that U.S. farmers could meet their labor needs with foreign workers. Today, we’d call that “comprehensive immigration reform,” but utter that phrase at a Trump rally and you might be assaulted at the urging of the candidate.

Ted Cruz hasn’t gone full Trump on immigration, but he has gone out of his way to attack Mr. Rubio on the issue in ways that could make it difficult for many Hispanics to vote Republican in the fall. “The immigration issue is a gateway issue for Hispanics, no doubt about it,” Mr. Rubio told The Journal in 2013. “No matter what your stance is on a number of other issues, if people somehow come to believe that you don’t like them or want them here, it is difficult to get them to listen to anything else.”

Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and WSJ contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).

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