Trump Takes a (Calculated) Risk on Immigration

His voters don’t care what Steve Bannon thinks. But they might care if their president acts like a career politician.

Donald Trump photo

Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa says that President Donald Trump will see his base “destroyed” if he agrees to provide legal status to illegal immigrants who came here as children, or at least if he does it without securing funding for a border wall. That’s bluster. But Trump is taking a political risk.

 It’s true that some of Trump’s most prominent supporters are furious with him over the issue. But most voters have sympathy for the affected population and favor legal status. Most Republicans, too: A Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 69 percent of Republicans favored legal status.
Exit polling from the Republican primaries last year provides additional reasons for thinking that Trump will be in the clear if he supports legal status. Few of the Republicans who voted considered immigration their top issue: 15 percent in New Hampshire, 10 percent in South Carolina.

The people who voted for Trump in the primaries are a reasonable definition of his political base. The evidence we have about them suggests that Steve Bannon doesn’t speak for them. We should have learned the lesson in April. Trump authorized air strikes against Syria, and many of his most vocal fans complained — but it didn’t faze his voters. An amnesty, even a limited one, could backfire on Trump anyway. There are Republican voters who don’t consider immigration their top issue and think that people who came here as children should be able to stay — but also worry that our government has not taken the task of controlling immigration seriously. (There are non-Republicans who feel this way, too.)

Even if a border wall is unpopular itself, Trump’s support for it and his refusal to back down from it in the face of criticism helped to establish that he would not cave in to this pressure. It was a symbol that he wasn’t weak like other politicians. He was tougher on illegal immigration. Some people who voted for him took him literally. They thought that if they voted for him, he would build a wall, maybe even with Mexican money. Others took him to be saying, I won’t flinch from doing what it takes.

If Trump held out the possibility of a limited amnesty to win Democratic support for some serious enforcement measures — like requiring that employers use E-Verify to make sure their new hires are all legally in the U.S. — then he could plausibly have said that he had delivered on the underlying message of his campaign rhetoric, even if not on all of its specifics.

But he’s not doing that. Instead, apparently impressed by the positive TV coverage he is getting for his bipartisanship and humanitarianism, he is insisting on the amnesty and being vague about the conditions. It looks less and less likely that he is going to get either a wall or E-Verify, the symbol or the substance. A segment of his voters might conclude that he wasn’t at all serious about illegal immigration — and, for that matter, that he isn’t a great dealmaker and doesn’t tell it like it is, two other traits that distinguished him from career politicians in their eyes. The polls, most of the talking heads he watches and probably his relatives are all telling him he is doing something smart on immigration. He might be making a big mistake.