Trump’s Grand Gamble: Pivoting to Immigration

If it goes down in flames, tax reform will be nearly impossible

President Donald Trump and Sen. David Perdue listen as Sen. Tom Cotton makes an announcement on the introduction of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on August 2, 2017. Zach Gibson - Pool/Getty Images

This week, shortly after the failure of the Obamacare repeal, President Donald Trump pivoted away from health care in favor of changing America’s legal immigration system. Is it the right call, or is he wasting his political capital on an unwinnable issue? Here’s the case for tackling immigration reform as well as reasons why he shouldn’t.

Why Taking on Immigration Is the Right Call

Going for immigration, and specifically legal immigration, could be a winner for Donald Trump. It’s not about immigration—it’s about his voting base.

As Steven Shepard with Politico writes, “A new study suggests the voters’ economic anxiety and cultural attitudes may be linked to a greater degree than previously reported—and that it potentially determined their votes in last year’s presidential elections.”

Shepard cites George Washington University Professor John Sides, whose research finds that about a third of white Obama voters had negative attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants. Liberal analysts Robert Griffin and Ruy Teixeira contend that this is colored by how voters perceive the economy.

There’s more to it than that. Trump did better among voters who believe that minorities will outnumber whites in the near future. In this way, voters believe that booting immigrants will help the Republican Party overcome the dreaded demographic shift in favor of groups that favor the Democratic Party. In other words, it’s a numbers game.

Barack Obama played this game five years ago. Shortly after Obamacare was passed and Republicans retook the House of Representatives, the Democratic chief executive was looking for his next policy focus. Many wanted him to choose the environment as the next project, but Obama decided to pivot to immigration. Seeing that her initiative would be sidelined, his climate czar, Carol Browner (Clinton’s longtime director of the Environmental Protection Agency), resigned in early 2011. America was then introduced to the concept of “Dreamers” (though it led to a less-robust signature on the Paris Climate Treaty that was easily unsigned earlier this year by Trump).

Obama chose this route because it was about building and appealing to his base. It stood a good chance of increasing the number of Democrats. Moreover, Mitt Romney’s ham-handed response to the immigration issue and having Kris Kobach on his team flipped a number of Hispanic voters to Obama in 2012.

Why Taking on Immigration Is the Wrong Call

Nevertheless, Trump’s efforts on immigration may go down in flames. First of all, immigration is not a priority for most Americans. Regardless of which polling firm you use, you’ll find immigration polling in single digits as a national priority. Even when immigration creeps up over ten percent, it’s far behind other issues that Americans view as most important. This has been the case since 2010.

Even then, Trump’s base may like his positions on immigration, but the country as a whole doesn’t. Seventy-one percent of Americans think immigration is a good thing. And voters oppose building the wall with Mexico by a 2 to 1 margin. And only a quarter of the population thinks our neighbor to the south will pay for it.

McClatchy-Marist polling reveals that more than 80 percent of voters favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in this country, so long as they pay fines, learn English and pay taxes. The same firm found that a majority of Americans oppose Trump’s ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, which polls from Quinnipiac University and several other polling organizations also found.

Given that the economy and jobs is the number one issue for most voters, one can understand why Republicans would want to connect the dots from this issue to immigration. But is the proposed reform of giving priority to those coming to work in the U.S. economy the best idea? If you’re worried about your job in America, do you fear someone’s grandmother from India coming to stay with her children or a highly skilled worker? If I were advising the president, I’d suggest taking on tax reform in a bipartisan fashion.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Trump’s Grand Gamble: Pivoting to Immigration