When he kicked off his presidential bid by referring to immigrants as “killers” and “rapists,” Donald Trump set the tone for what’s been characterized as an aberrant sideshow. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, called to ask him to “tone it down a little bit.” That was unsuccessful, as well as ironic: Back in 2012, it was Donald Trump who argued that Mitt Romney lost his bid for the White House because of his “maniacal” immigration rhetoric.
Trump’s comments drew a rash of public criticism from the press and some of his business partners, but it took the GOP field weeks to respond. Contrast that to the indignation Trump’s rivals swiftly unloaded in reaction to his razzing of Arizona Senator John McCain. The message sent was that questioning a veteran’s valor makes one unfit for the presidency; characterizing millions of people as “rapists” earns one a quiet call. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and others did belatedly try to put distance between themselves and Trump on immigration; Bush asserted that Trump’s “views are way out of the mainstream of what Republicans think.” But since then many of the candidates have enthusiastically joined a crusade for stricter enforcement, based on unsupported notions about the criminality of immigrants—a move that suggests Tump’s views are in line with the way Republicans act, at least.
Following Trump’s lead, candidates and lawmakers have seized on the death of a Kathryn Steinle, a young woman shot and killed in San Francisco earlier this month allegedly by an undocumented Mexican immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who’d been deported several times and was recently released from custody by city authorities. Claiming that Steinle’s death is the result of lax immigration enforcement, lawmakers are now moving on a number of bills designed to crack down on San Francisco and some 300 other “sanctuary cities” where police decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would strip Justice Department grants from cities that refuse to work with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and a handful of similar proposals have been introduced in the Senate. Democrats have dubbed the House bill the “Donald Trump Act.”
There’s no evidence that Steinle’s death represents a broader trend linking the undocumented to violent crime. “The trends are actually clear in the case of immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to be behind bars and less likely to commit crimes than native-born people,” said Walter Ewing, senior researcher at the American Immigration Council and one of the authors of a new study that challenges assumptions about the criminality of immigrants. “You can find examples of any group of people committing heinous crimes,” Ewing said when I asked how to explain Steinle’s death. “What’s different is how you respond. If a white person commits a heinous crime, you don’t say, ‘Oh my god, those white people—you’ve got to do something about that.’”
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It’s also not clear that San Francisco’s policies towards ICE, rather than ICE itself or the federal Bureau of Prisons, led to Steinle’s death, or come at the expense of public safety more generally. Data suggests that sanctuary cities are actually safer than others. Though many local law-enforcement agencies have stopped cooperating with ICE, their intent isn’t necessarily to offer special protection to undocumented immigrants. The point, as the police chief of Dayton, Ohio, wrote recently, is to make sure that the undocumented feel comfortable reporting crimes, which they might not do if they know local police are working as an extension of ICE. Cities are also concerned about their legal liability: A federal judge ruled last year that detaining people based only on a request from immigration authorities and without a warrant is unconstitutional.
Immigrant-rights advocates, along with many mayors and police departments, are pushing back against the sanctuary-cities crackdown. “We’re seeing a lot of extreme anti-immigrant voices manipulate this tragedy to scapegoat and punish all immigrants,” said Angie Junck, an attorney at the San Francisco–based Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “We need to also look at the underlying issues of why these crimes happen in the first place, and we need solutions that reflect our values. We need to look at potential issues of substance abuse, mental health, gun violence.”
“So much for broadening of the base of the GOP,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org. Carmona said he sees “very little” difference between Trump’s views on immigration and those of the other Republican candidates. “I only see a difference in the grotesque way that Trump talks, versus the nicer way that other Republicans in Congress and in the GOP primary talk. It’s essentially the same policies—based on fear, based on hate. It’s a very sad and unfortunate moment,” he said.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid made a similar charge on Tuesday, telling reporters that “there is no meaningful difference between the Republican Party and Donald Trump.” But a few Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, have joined the GOP’s calls to force closer cooperation between local police and ICE. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are squabbling about whether their sanctuary-city bills are tough enough; some want to tack on additional measures, such as longer mandatory minimum sentences for undocumented immigrants convicted of drunk driving or multiple border crossings. And GOP leaders are reportedly planning yet more enforcement legislation later this year.
The GOP’s real problem isn’t Trump, it’s xenophobia. Immigrants and their allies have a consistent and straightforward priority—comprehensive immigration reform—but the party is beholden to the nativist urges of its primary voters. That dilemma pre-exists Trump’s ascendance in the polls, and will persist even if party leaders find a way to shunt him off to the dustbin of history. Odds are Reince Priebus can’t fix it with a phone call.