Donald Trump’s push to restrict immigration is clashing with policy goals in ways that detractors and even some supporters say could hurt his 2020 reelection bid.
It’s happened, they note, on everything from Trump’s effort to weaken Iran’s Islamist regime, to his attempts to strike a trade deal with Mexico, to his push to oust Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro. And it could happen on gun control, if Trump tries to wed expanded background checks with an immigration overhaul.
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To pro-immigrant advocates, Trump simply wants to inject immigration into as many discussions to keep it alive an election wedge issue. They argue he’s blind to the consequences that is having on his other major initiatives.
“Everything you see is about 2020,” said David Leopold, a prominent immigration lawyer and Trump critic. “He uses the issue — a very serious policy issue, a complicated policy problem, immigration — he uses it for purely selfish political reasons, to throw red meat to his base.”
But others insist he is purely going off instinct. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbing immigration, laughed when asked if there was a strategy behind some of Trump’s moves.
“There are both supporters and detractors of his who imagine he’s playing 40-dimensional string theory chess, when in fact he’s just operating from his gut,” he said.
Regardless, Trump’s approach to immigration has — intentionally or not — gotten mixed up with his administration’s other initiatives.
One major Trump foreign policy goal is forcing out Maduro, whom Trump no longer recognizes as Venezuela’s president. Trump and his aides have pointed to Venezuela’s misery — an economic collapse, food and medicine shortages and corruption — as reasons why Maduro should be ousted.
But even as the Trump team has detailed the horrifying conditions that have led millions of Venezuelans to flee, it has ignored calls to grant Venezuelans in the United States “temporary protected status” so that they can stay in America even if they lack legal status.
In fact, Trump has been trying to dismantle the entire TPS program, which has also covered people from several other nations riven with violence or natural disaster. Trump is also trying to cut down on the number of people granted asylum in the U.S. just as Venezuela has become a top source of asylum applications filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Another Trump foreign policy goal is to weaken the Islamist government in Iran. Using primarily economic sanctions, the president and his team are raising pressure on the clerical regime, and they say they’re doing it in part to end the oppression of ordinary Iranians.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even implied that deteriorating economic conditions in the country could cause Iranians to revolt against the regime. “I think what can change is the people can change the government,” Pompeo told CBS News earlier this year.
But Trump’s expressed love for Iranians — he’s called them “great people” — has been undercut by his decision to include Iranians in his infamous travel ban. Iranian activists point to the travel ban, and Trump’s tighter asylum policies, as evidence Trump doesn’t care about Iranians at all.
“It’s like a slap in the face. The Trump administration is asking Iranians to rise up against their cruel regime, and at the same time they are not allowing them to take safe haven in the United States,” said Leila Austin, executive director of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a non-profit advocacy group.
Even some supporters of Trump’s overall tough policy toward Iran say the travel ban was a mistake, and that at the very least it should have been better tailored.
“Lift the travel ban & give thousands of H1B [visas] & green cards to ordinary Iranians,” Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has backed Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” against the Iranian regime, tweeted in April.“Ban regime connected officials & their families from entering US.”
Trump’s tough immigration policies have at times damaged his standing with people who voted for him. For instance, many members of America’s Iraqi Christian community supported Trump because he promised to do more to protect Christians overseas. That promise also led many evangelical Christians to support the president.
But as part of his immigration crackdown, Trump has been trying to deport hundreds of Iraqi Christians back to Iraq, where many fear they’ll face torture and death. Just this past week, a 41-year-old Michigan man deported to Iraq in June died, possibly because could not obtain insulin in Baghdad to treat his diabetes. While the man, Jimmy Aldaoud, was an Iraqi national, he had been in the U.S. since he was a young child and did not speak Arabic.
Aldaoud was one of an estimated 160,000 Chaldean Catholics in Michigan, many of whom supported Trump in 2016. They now feel betrayed.
“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety in the community,” said Martin Manna of the Chaldean Community Foundation earlier this week.
Also this past week, following deadly mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Trump signaled that he might support expanding background checks for people seeking to buy guns. But he also briefly floated the idea of “marrying” gun control to an immigration overhaul. Such a linkage would likely kill chances for either proposal to succeed.
Trump’s campaign insists his strict approach to immigration is actually well-matched with the president’s other initiatives — both at home and abroad.
“President Trump’s first priorities will always be the safety and prosperity of the American people, which is why he has focused on border security and the enforcement of immigration laws,” a Trump campaign spokesperson said in a statement. “He will also stand in support of freedom over tyranny around the world. These principles are compatible.”
In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Trump used immigration as a major talking point, regularly inveighing against “caravans” of migrants coming to the U.S. from Latin America. Despite Democrats racking up big wins in that election, Trump hasn’t abandoned his anti-immigration emphasis.
He shut down the federal government for a record 35 days in an unsuccessful bid to get Congress to fund the construction of a border wall with Mexico. The costly move angered workers in many industrial sectors, threatening a Republican talking point for 2020 about how well the U.S. economy is doing under Trump.
Trump then stunned Washington in May when he threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico if it didn’t do more to stop migrants from crossing into the United States.
Even Republican lawmakers warned that the tariffs could threaten congressional approval of what Trump considers a top achievement: His negotiation of a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. They also noted the tariffs could hurt American workers, including many farmers who have supported Trump.
Mexico has avoided the threatened tariffs so far by stepping up efforts to deter migrants from entering the U.S. But Trump’s threats may also have spooked China, another country with whom he’s engaged in trade talks, about whether he’s reliable.
“The message that was received was that deals that the president makes don’t stick. You’re always vulnerable to him coming back and wanting to change everything,” said Bill Reinsch, an Asia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump is surrounded by some top aides, such as Stephen Miller, who are known to favor much tighter restrictions on immigration. But former Trump aides and even some of his critics say that at the end of the day, it’s Trump’s own political instincts that drive his message.
Trump’s instincts apparently tell him that revving up anti-immigrant attitudes among some in the Republican base will work for him in 2020 — even after the 2018 setback and even if it means undercutting other policy goals.
“I don’t think he cares about his legacy as much as he cares about the moment,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal group advocating for immigration reform.
Sometimes Trump’s immigration policy appears to undermine his immigration policy.
Krikorian pointed out that while Trump talks of ensuring Americans have access to jobs, the president has also suggested that he wants to let in more immigrants to fill certain positions, such as temporary jobs in landscaping and housekeeping.
And in June, the State Department confirmed that the United States will cut off future foreign aid funds to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — three Central American countries that are a major source of migrants to the United States.
Trump says those countries aren’t doing enough to stop their citizens from fleeing to America. But Republicans and Democrats in Congress have criticized his decision to cut off the funding. They argue that by ending support for programs that try to reduce violence and ease poverty, Trump’s decision could spur even more people to migrate to the U.S.
Some Trump critics wonder if Trump is intentionally trying to exacerbate the migration crisis through such moves so that he can point to it — and his self-declared toughness on immigration — as a reason why he should be re-elected.
“I think it’s a terrible move,” Leopold said. “And he’s going to learn that in 2020.”