President Donald Trump has thrust the issue of illegal immigration back to the fore of his political rallies, gambling that his combative rhetoric can galvanize his Republican base ahead of next month’s pivotal midterm elections.
But so far there’s scant evidence the divisive issue that helped carry him to victory in 2016 will do the same for his party in November. Instead, it may backfire.
Swing voters, independents and even some Republican congressional candidates are at odds with Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration. GOP candidates are especially cognizant of the political damage caused by the deeply unpopular practice of separating children from families who sought asylum at the Mexican border. Trump hastily repealed the policy this summer after a public outcry.
But with border crossings again on the rise, Trump has indicated he’s revisiting the policy his administration termed “zero tolerance,” which led to family separations. And at a series of political rallies for Republican candidates and other public remarks, he’s returned to the more divisive tone of his presidential campaign, deriding immigrants as “bad hombres,” warning that Democrats want to open borders to a flood of criminals, and threatening to send the military to stop a caravan of more than 4,000 people travelling from Honduras towards the US border.
“The Democrats don’t care that a flood of illegal immigration will bankrupt our nation,” Trump said on Saturday at a rally in Elko, Nevada—the last stop in a three-state tour of the West. A Democratic victory “would be a bright, flashing invitation to every human trafficker, drug trafficker,” he said, adding the false claim that Democrats want to give undocumented immigrants free health care, welfare and the right to vote.
The strategy is a high-stakes test of Trump’s political instincts. Republicans hope that his fixation with immigration can once again pay unexpected dividends.
“It’s a dangerous game he’s playing,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “It’s clearly to motivate his base,” but by reminding Democrats and anti-Trump independents of some of his least popular policies, he “could have the effect of activating them,” he said.
Some Democrats expect Trump’s rhetoric to harden opinions about the president, helping their party in suburban districts.
“Hard-line anti-immigrant politicians have promised for more than two decades that they would win if they finally adopted their restrictionist policies,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group backed by tech leaders including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. “The facts show this to be completely false,” he said, citing the struggles of Trump allies Lou Barletta, a Republican congressman running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, and Representative Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican whose district is unusually competitive this year.