Donald Trump's all-out denouncements of illegal immigration helped catapult him to being a few jumps in the polls away from the presidency, but his rhetoric hasn't helped him in the border states that would be the site of his long-promised wall.
The GOP nominee is likely to win in both Arizona and Texas, but by smaller margins than are usually enjoyed by Republicans in states that are usually strongholds for them. Does that mean that Trump's fire and brimstone talk is actually turning border voters off, and that they don't want his "big, beautiful wall" after all? Or is he just a uniquely bad messenger for anti-immigration polices that many voters still believe?
"Part of the reason Trump is going to lose is because he's Donald Trump," Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors restrictionist immigration policies, says. "He's obnoxious and has all kinds of personal baggage that turns people off even if they hate Hillary [Clinton] and agree with what he says. The result of this election is not going to be any kind of ruling on policy positions."
Whoever wins the presidency, immigration reform is unlikely thanks to widespread opposition from conservative Republicans in Congress. But observers say the votes in Texas and Arizona show how the immigration issue is evolving—led, in part, by Latino voters who have built their electoral strength in response to anti-immigration politics. Antonio Gonzalez, the man who has helped lead that effort as president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, says the future of immigration reform may bypass DC entirely and take place at the state level instead.
"Federalism is real," Gonzalez tells me. "There's no reason immigration reform, or some version of it, can't be enacted by the states." Gonzalez believes states and cities will lead the way on immigration, as they have on gay marriage and marijuana legalizations.
You can forgive Gonzalez for being skeptical about the prospects for federal reform. He's witnessed previous turning points—big Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, as well as the famous Republican National Committee "autopsy" advocating outreach to voters of color after the 2012 election—turn into dust. After all, the Obama administration holds the record for deportations.
"One thing both parties have done," he says, "is ratchet up border enforcement."
Gonzalez doesn't expect anything different after the 2016 election, even if Clinton wins big.
"I think there'll be a kabuki dance of Democrats offering some form of immigration reform," he says. "Republicans will reject it, and Democrats will say, 'We'll punish you in 2018.'"
That's not to say that important changes aren't happening. Motivated by initiatives like Arizona's controversial SB 1070, which required state law officers to determine an individual's immigration status during traffic stops, Latino voter registration has surged from a reported 9.7 million in 2008 to an estimated 13.1 million in 2016. (Meanwhile, a court challenge to the law diluted its power.) In Arizona, 22 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic, making them a powerful voting bloc. In Texas, Democrats are holding out hope that someday, the Latino vote could flip the state from deep red to bright blue.
Some longtime anti-immigration hawks like Arizona's Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio are suddenly finding themselves on the ropes in this year's election. (Arpaio isn't helped by the fact that he's facing a federal criminal contempt citation in a racial profiling case.) Lisa Magana, an associate professor at Arizona State University, says the troubles of anti-immigration politicians in her state aren't surprising. Recent polling shows most of the state's voters are against Trump's proposed wall, and even more—68 percent—are against deporting all undocumented immigrants.
"I don't think (Trump's) message is consistent with how people feel, living in a border state," Magana tells me. "It may work with his base, his supporters, but it doesn't necessarily coincide, in Texas and Arizona, with attitudes toward immigration."
Still, the fact that Trump was able to rise to the Republican nomination means that there's a sizable population of anti-immigration voters who won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
"The Trump campaign started with—and has always put front and center—anti-immigrant and anti-Mexico rhetoric as its cornerstone. The election would be a repudiation of that," says Raúl A. Ramos, an associate professor at the University of Houston. "But the fact those sentiments gained the traction it did (in the GOP primaries) shows it'll still be there."
That means Republican politicians have every incentive to block immigration reform, even if Clinton wins an overwhelming victory.
"If Republicans keep control of the House, as they're likely to... legislatively, not much is going to happen," Krikorian says. "The other side is not going to get what it wants, and the proactive stuff I want isn't going to get passed either."
That doesn't mean there won't be movement on the issue. States and cities are already striking out on their own. There are a number of "sanctuary cities" that decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Some, like New York, are offering IDs to undocumented migrants to help them access city services.
Krikorian, meanwhile, is putting Republican politicians on notice not to backtrack on immigration enforcement. The 2012 "autopsy" recommending the party soften its approach on the issue, he says, was a disaster.
"The GOP brain trust just completely misunderstood their own voters," he says. "That's an interesting question I think will determine, literally, the continuing existence of the Republican Party."
Trump may lose, Krikorian says, but that doesn't mean immigration hawkishness is a losing issue. "The opportunity is there," he says, "for a Republican who isn't a lunatic."
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