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As Trump Reappears to Replay Failed Anti-Immigrant Attacks, Where are the GOP Voices of Moderation?

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This Sunday, Donald Trump will deliver a speech at CPAC that reportedly will focus heavily on immigration. This begs a few questions: 

  • Didn’t we just emerge from multiple election cycles in which Trump and the GOP ran hard on Democrats’ supposed radicalism on immigration? 
  • Didn’t Trump attack Biden on “amnesty” and being “soft-on-immigration” throughout the 2020 cycle, and didn’t it fail? 
  • Didn’t the American people grow significantly more pro-immigrant over the Trump era? 
  • And isn’t a permanent solution for undocumented immigrants something that three-fourths of Americans support in poll after poll after poll?

The answer to each of the above is yes. 

GOP use of immigration as a wedge issue is losing its edge 

In 2018, Trump and the Republicans nationalized the elections and made them all about caravans. It backfired, bigly. Democrats won by the largest midterm margin in American history. 

What about 2020? Stephen Miller asserted last summer that Joe Biden’s immigration stance would prove to be “a massive political vulnerability” in the campaign. Between April and June 2020, the Trump campaign spent more on immigration ads on Facebook than on any other issue. In fact, our 2020 ad tracking project and report found that at the presidential level, Trump ran 157 unique ads that employed xenophobic messaging. 

For example, an often used attack from the Trump campaign warned voters, “Joe Biden says “citizenship for 11 million undocumented folks … [and that] means 11 million illegal immigrants competing for American jobs, eligible for free healthcare, Social Security and Medicare.” Similarly, GOP candidates and super PACs attacked Democratic Representatives Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, and Arizona Senate candidate Mark Kelly on “amnesty.” The Democrats won all these hotly contested races. 

Why did the “amnesty” attack fail? Our pollsters at GSG asked voters in battleground states prior to the election. Their take: “few voters – and even fewer swing voters – find this [attack] to raise doubts about voting for Biden, even though many believe the line to be true. That’s because voters largely support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” 

In fact, Biden closed by running an ad on immigration. Biden won with a record 81 million votes and a popular vote margin of 7 million, powered by a multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational majority that rejects xenophobia and supports pro-immigrant policies.  

Nativism as a wedge issue wielded against Democrats is losing its edge. 

Public opinion: Trump forced a choice, and Americans have never been more pro-immigrant

Trump’s relentless war on immigrants forced a choice, and a solid majority of Americans came down on the side of immigrants. 

Gallup 2020 polling showed support for immigrants and for increasing immigration levels — questions they have been asking since 1965 — at its highest level ever. Pew Research 2020 polling found that 60% believe the growing number of newcomers strengthen American society while 37% say they threaten traditional customs and values – a whopping 14 percentage point shift in the pro-immigrant direction during the Trump era. 

Polling in 2021 from Quinnipiac, PRRI; Vox; and Morning Consult have all found strong majority support – from the mid-60s to the mid-80s depending on the framing of the question –  for a permanent solution for undocumented immigrants. 

As Giovanni Russonelli of the New York Times phrased it this week, “So-called amnesty for undocumented immigrants has long been a hot-button topic for the G.O.P. base, but allowing immigrants to stay in the country has the support of roughly three-quarters of Americans, and even a slim majority of Republicans.” 

See our December 2020 deep-dive on American immigration public opinion and polling here.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: 

As Trump gets ready to reemerge and spew his anti-immigrant hate and venom, President Biden and Democrats in Congress are putting forward a series of legislative solutions that would move America forward and solve big problems. They have made it crystal clear that they would welcome Republican support and engagement. If Republicans bring votes and ideas, Democrats would love to pass immigration reform on a bipartisan basis.

Where are the Republicans willing to work with Biden on his bill? Who is stepping forward with proposals and support? How come the business community strongly supports immigration reform and yet pro-business Republicans are missing in action?

We know why. The Republican Party is the Trump party. The GOP is not interested in policy, it’s interested in power. The party faithful don’t advance ideas, they advance white grievance and white identity politics. The GOP doesn’t reach out to the middle, they rile up and cater exclusively to their base – even if it threatens our democracy.

We understand that Democrats feel compelled to reach out to Republicans, but may we suggest that, soon, they listen to the deafening silence and move forward without them? Democrats should not be constrained by bad faith efforts to scuttle legislative progress or spooked by old-style attacks on ‘amnesty.’ It’s time to respect the will of the majority and do big things, even if it means no Republicans come with.