Conciliation, contradiction, reality checks, and why they matter — or don’t — for 2016.
- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
Donald Trump jetted to Mexico this week for a meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto that aides hoped would make the unabashed New York TV personality-turned-Republican nominee appear presidential, and prompt the shrinking number of undecided American voters to give him a fresh look.
Instead, he came back for an immigration-themed speech later Wednesday in Arizona and fell back on the raw instincts that won him unexpected success in the GOP primary — but have kept him from expanding his base in the general election against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Unpacking the latest machinations on his signature immigration proposals lends insight into what’s ahead for Trump in the final weeks before Election Day: a narrowing path to the White House on an already-difficult electoral map.
Trump kicked off his campaign for president in June 2015 promising to build a “great wall” on the United States’s 2,000-mile southern border and vowing Mexico would bankroll it, a wildly popular pledge with his supporters.
From day one I said that I was going to build a great wall on the SOUTHERN BORDER, and much more. Stop illegal immigration. Watch Wednesday!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2016
But the wall is practically unworkable and politically unfeasible.
He estimated the cost at $10 billion — though some say it would be more than double that — but not funded by the American taxpayer. Much of the wall would run through private land, necessitating the use of eminent domain, and require approval from an already skeptical Congress.
Trump says he would force Mexico to finance the behemoth infrastructure project, but he has not quite cemented this payment plan.
“We did discuss the wall. We didn’t discuss payment of the wall,” Trump said during his appearance with Peña Nieto.
“Mexico will pay for the wall,” Trump said hours later in Phoenix. “One hundred percent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.”
But Peña Nieto said he directly told Trump his country will not pay, a stance he’s since repeated in defending and describing the meeting.
Even with the aerial surveillance and anti-tunnel technology Trump has promised, experts believe the wall would not stop those determined to cross it. Moreover, illegal crossings have dropped to their lowest levels in roughly four decades. Among Mexican immigrants, the apparent focus of Trump’s immigration plans, the flow has reversed — since 2009, more are leaving the United States than coming.
Trump’s wall may be human. With his pledged 5,000 Border Patrol officers joining the 17,500 already assigned to the land border, enough agents stand along the border stationed roughly only 200 feet apart.
Trump has threatened with varying force to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“You’re going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely,” he told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski in November.
But last week at a Fox News town hall, he said, “There certainly can be a softening.” Three days later, he reversed again, saying, “My stance is very strong.… There will be no amnesty. There is no legalization.”
Then on Wednesday in Mexico, Trump said, “Illegal immigration is a problem for Mexico as well as for us.” Hours later in Arizona, where he leads Clinton narrowly, he promised policy details but veered quickly into rhetoric.
He said he’d form a “deportation task force” to remove dangerous undocumented immigrants “who have evaded justice just like Hillary Clinton.” He quipped: “Maybe they’ll be able to deport her.”
But he continued, “Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country.”
Some aspects of his proposals aren’t all that different from current policy. In 2014, President Barack Obama instructed federal agencies to direct limited resources to removing immigrants who pose security threats or have more serious criminal records.
But Trump went further than promising to throw out Obama’s executive actions granting deportation relief, vowing that while some would be removed faster than others, none of the 11 million would be exempt from deportation.
Still, he left many unanswered questions about how he’d carry it out.
By most measures, the U.S. side of the border is as safe as it’s ever been. Obama has deported more people and devoted more money and manpower to border security than any other president — including giving Mexico millions to crack down on its southern border.
Why it matters to Trump but won’t for November
From his very first speech, Trump said Mexico “wasn’t sending its best people,” broadly painting those as rapists, criminals, and drug dealers.
Trump is far from the first politician to benefit from scapegoating and fear mongering. And being “tough on border security” has long been boilerplate Republican policy. But Trump has found particular potency with this strategy in 2016, tapping into often-overlooked frustration over economic inequality, and heightened anxiety over national security.
As was on full display in Arizona, he consistently falls back on that base political instinct, which helped win him a record number of votes in the Republican primary, including some people who typically don’t go to the polls.
Yet while tripling down on the wall and deporting millions may rally his base, such promises do not grow it.
The GOP’s oft-cited “autopsy report” following its 2012 presidential election loss prescribed that the party soften its tone, particularly on immigration, to broaden its outreach with fast-growing populations of left-leaning minority voters — or risk losing the White House for a generation.
Democrats came into 2016 with that advantage, by demographics and voter affiliation. And Trump has strengthened it, with his rhetoric and hard-line immigration policy dragging his approval ratings with large sections of the electorate. Latinos in particular comprise a large chunk of the voting population in key battleground states he needs to win but stands to lose.
With early voting starting in days, north of the border isn’t looking too welcoming for Trump either.
Photo credit: HECTOR VIVAS/STR/Contributor