Going Backward

It’s Still 1965 in Donald Trump’s Mind on Immigration

Until Trump, politicians who staked their careers on xenophobia and nativism were losers. Maybe even he is beginning to realize this.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

To illustrate party polarization, politics professor Jack Pitney showed his class the recent 30-second web ad released by President Trump’s re-election campaign that says Democrats are “complicit” when undocumented immigrants commit murder. The students reacted with “nervous laughter, jaw drops, and some may have thought it was a spoof,” Pitney told The Daily Beast.

In a classroom in California, where Pitney teaches at Claremont McKenna College, he says there’s not a lot of “gut understanding” of people in, say, rural Illinois who might think immigrants are a threat to future generations. That’s why some students could watch the Trump campaign ad with its racially infused scenes and think it aired on Saturday Night Live.

There are two Americas when it comes to attitudes toward immigration, and the numbers tell the story. In 1960, 5.4 percent were foreign born; in 1970, it was 4.7 percent. Today it’s 13.5 percent. And the newcomers are not spread evenly across the country. Trump lost 16 of the 20 states with the most immigrants, with California the most obvious, and he won 26 of the 30 states with the least number of immigrants.

Thanks to incendiary comments by politicians with a vested interest in stoking fears, people in states with the fewest immigrants are the most frightened of what they believe is an “invasion.” Surveys find that people think there are far more immigrants than there actually are, mirroring their belief that government devotes a vast amount of money to foreign aid, when it’s less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which Ted Kennedy shepherded through the Senate, opened the door to the modern wave of immigrants from around the world. Before that, they came mainly from Northern Europe.

Family unification, which Trump derides as “chain migration,” was put in place as a way to insure the flow of largely white and European immigrants would continue. Now that immigrants from other places are the beneficiaries, Trump wants to end it.

“So much of Trump’s ire is focused on Mexico, but the numbers tell quite a different story,” says Philip Wolgin, an immigration analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “Trump set up a strawman, a bogeyman when he stereotyped immigrants in that ad, which is the basest, most disgusting view on immigration. The number of Mexicans is dropping, Asians are increasing, and overall illegal immigration is falling.”

Until Trump pulled off a victory in 2016 by scapegoating immigrants, and demanding a wall at the border with Mexico, politicians who staked their careers on stoking nativism ended up as losers.

Even Trump may be having second thoughts with the White House proposing a pathway to citizenship for up to 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants, the nearly 800,000 so-called “dreamers” plus others who are eligible but failed to apply—in exchange for $25 billion to pay for border security that includes a “wall system.”


A backlash can stall political reality for a while, but it can’t repeal it.

In 1992, Pat Buchanan, the forerunner to Trump in many ways, campaigned on having the Army Corps of Engineers erect a “double-barrier fence” along the border. Compromise language in the Republican platform hashed out between the Buchanan and George H.W. Bush camps that year called for “tools, technology and structures to secure the border.” Surely you don’t mean a fence, Bush officials said to the candidate’s sister and campaign manager. “We’re not talking about lighthouses,” she replied.

Then there was Republican Pete Wilson, who after winning re-election to a second term as California governor in 1994, signed into law Proposition 187. It sought to deny undocumented immigrants almost all public services, including health care and public education. The backlash was broad and brutal, turning California into a Democratic stronghold. It also ended Wilson’s nascent presidential campaign, which he launched with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, a preposterous bit of stagecraft given his position on immigration. Prop 187 never went into effect and was declared unconstitutional.

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Until Trump resurrected it, vitriolic anti-immigration sentiment was relegated to the fringes. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo got nowhere in the 2008 cycle running for president after releasing an ad in November 2007 called “Tough on Terror,” which imagines an attack on a shopping mall and in language that is a precursor to this month’s Trump ad, declares, “There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs… The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill.”

Tancredo’s shock and awe found few followers. He dropped out of the race the following month and endorsed Mitt Romney. Now he’s running for governor of Colorado, his third try for that office, and odds are it will end like the others. “People know who I am, I have great name recognition,” Tancredo told The Denver Post. “That’s really a good thing,” he said, but the “bad thing is that I have great name recognition. There are a lot of people out there, I know, who don’t take a like-minded position on things.”

Back in the day, the infamous Willie Horton ad accused Democrats of being soft on crime by showing shadowy figures moving through a revolving door from jail back to the streets. The Bush campaign in 1988 kept its distance, claiming the inflammatory ad was the product of a nominally independent group, and not the Bush campaign.

The Trump ad features migrants being hauled away and zeroes in on the face of an undocumented immigrant accused of killing two California sheriff’s deputies in October 2014. The ad creates the impression of rampant mayhem, and there is no attempt to hide anything: The ad concludes with the ringing endorsement, “I’m Donald Trump and I approve of this message.”

Theresa Brown, an immigration expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, attributes much of the anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump was able to capitalize on to the after-effects of the Great Recession and to rapid social changes. “Make America Great again is the epitome of a reactionary message,” she told The Daily Beast. “You want to go back to an America that is different. Why did we abandon that idea of an America where anybody can come? Where did that go? It’s not a majority (embracing the reactionary view), but it’s a louder minority that’s causing the debate.”

Another cautionary tale is former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, who ran for governor in Virginia last year trying to out-Trump Trump on immigration. He lost the state, and most specifically, the suburbs. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin tweeted, “The debate in Congress is over protecting young Dreamers from deportation. But Trump and his allies want Americans to see all immigrants as criminals. This kind of advertising BACKFIRED on Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and it will bring down many suburban GOPers across the country.”

Trump is conflicted on immigration, veering back and forth across policy lines to the point where Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said it was like “negotiating with Jell-O.” The new White House framework limits chain migration and ends a controversial lottery system, but it includes a 10 to 12 year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have “work history, the right amount of education, and a good moral character.”

The proposal received condemnation from the left and the right. Conservatives denounced it as amnesty, and progressives said the dreamers shouldn’t be held hostage to a wall, which they oppose funding.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres points out that President Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, including a majority of Sunbelt Hispanics. “It’s no coincidence that he was the last Republican nominee for president to win a majority of the vote (in 2004),” Ayers says. “The changing demographics of the country demand Republicans do better with Hispanics if they hope to win nationally. The numbers are the numbers.”

Trump won the presidency with 46.2 percent of the vote, less than the 47.2 percent Mitt Romney got in 2012, when he lost the presidency.

Trump is a reaction against modernity—a backlash against where the country is going. A backlash can stall political reality for a while, but it can’t repeal it. However the next showdown over immigration plays out, the GOP can’t change the underlying numbers.