Donald Trump isn’t shifting his position on immigration — he’s just shifting how he talks about it.
In recent days, Trump and his advisors have attempted to give off the impression that he is softening his tone on immigration. But the fact remains that Trump is still in favor of a “deportation force” to remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families from the United States within 18 months.
Even if Trump did actually flip on his extremist and widely-unpopular immigration positions, the damage between the GOP and Latino voters will linger for years. As Lauren Fox writes on TPM:
No matter which policy prescriptions for immigration Trump finally lands on, the Republican Party’s fortunes with Latino voters are inextricably tied to a candidate who has already done long-term damage to the Republican brand.
After Romney got a mere 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, the Republican Party’s leaders pledged to never again gamble their chance at the White House on anti-immigration rhetoric and policies. Gone, they promised were pitches for “self-deportation.” Illegal immigration, Jeb Bush declared was “an act of love.” The GOP released an autopsy report, they promised to reach out early and often to Latino communities, they hired Latino outreach staffers to canvas the battleground states and in the Senate, Republicans made a calculation that an immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship was a way to repair years worth of damage.
Comprehensive immigration reform fell apart, of course, well before Trump, and the Republican Party owns that failure. But Trump played into and reinvigorated the nativist wing of the party. He lacked any desire to build an outreach campaign to Latinos and openly stereotyped, demonized, and attacked them.
“Trump has thrown away the dog whistle and picked up the bull horn,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of pro-immigration reform America’s Voice. “He has insulted a diverse range of immigrant communities in a way that is going to be really hard for the Republican Party to fix.”
A Fox News Latino poll last week showed that only 20 percent of Latinos planned to vote for Trump in the election and that 82 percent of them viewed Trump unfavorably, an increase of 8 points since May. But Trump’s damage also has lasting effects for the party. The same poll found that 68 percent of Latinos had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, a 10 point increase from May.
Trump’s damage is twofold. On the one hand, Latino voters themselves are straying further from the party. That is a problem. But, Trump’s rhetoric also has another consequence for Republican leaders. Now, the anti-immigrant wing of the party has reemerged, they aren’t likely to go away after the election. That in itself may make it almost impossible for Republican leadership to make inroads with the Latinos even after Trump’s place at the top of the ticket is a distant memory.
“The only way Republicans can begin to recover from Trump and the racism and bigotry directed to Latinos is to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but they are going to find it difficult to do so when a third of their party are rabid Trump supporters,” Sharry said. “I am skeptical at best that people like Paul Ryan and other modernizing Republicans have what it takes to neutralize the nativist forces in their party so they can overcome Trump’s damage. What is more likely is that the Republican dog gets wagged by the populist tail.”
Even in 2012, then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) found there was little appetite in the House of Representatives to pursue immigration reform. That reality is only likely to be heightened.
Immigration reformers agree that the Republican Party is not irrevocably doomed with Latino voters forever even with Trump’s plans to build a wall or his attacks on a federal judge’s Mexican heritage. But they agree that the GOP’s overture to Latino voters will have to be grand and significant after the election if they are going to begin to repair the trust that was lost.
If Clinton is elected president, Tamar Jacoby, the president and CEO of the pro-reform ImmigrationWorks USA, said that Republicans will be put in a position where they will have to work with Clinton on reform.
“If Republicans just become the foot draggers to Hillary’s proposals they will look like the foot draggers,” Jacoby said. “It will have to look like they are trying to actually solve the problem. They certainly will have to do something. Saying goodbye to Trump is not enough.”
Some Republican leaders in Congress have made it a point to try to distance themselves from Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in an effort to minimize the damage. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out against Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has openly wondered if Trump’s rhetoric could sink the party for a generation.
“What I said was that I was worried that we would do to the Latino vote what was done to the African-American vote by defining our party in such a way that we could not reach out to what has become the nation’s largest minority group,” McConnell said. “I am worried about that.”