In his first 14 months in office, Donald Trump has consistently appealed to nativism and pursued an approach to immigration-law enforcement based explicitly on the premise that every undocumented immigrant should, as the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) put it, “look over [their] shoulder”and “be worried” about deportation. He’s become a hero of the anti-immigration movement.
Immigrant communities are terrified, and rightly so; despite Trump’s insistence that his priority is removing immigrants who commit crimes, there have been reports across the country of people being detained by ICE in the ordinary course of their law-abiding lives—going to work, dropping their kids off at school. Even more alarmingly, it appears that ICE has been actively targeting immigrant-justice activists who dare to speak out on the issue.
But while it may be hard to see it at present, over the longer term, Trump may end up doing enormous damage to the movement to restrict immigration to the United States. Immigrant-rights advocates say that Trump’s penchant for skipping the right’s typical dog whistles and overtly racializing the issue is changing the political landscape in three important ways.
First, the backlash against Trump appears to be making the public as a whole more welcoming to immigrants. A spike in hate crimes following the launch of his campaign is often described as the “Trump Effect,” but we’ve also seen a reverse Trump Effect at play. For over 20 years, Pew has been asking Americans whether they believe that immigrants “strengthen the country with their hard work or talents” or “burden the country by taking jobs, housing [and] health care.” When Trump began his campaign in 2015, 51 percent of respondents said immigrants strengthen the country and 41 percent thought that they represented a burden. A little over two years later, Pew found that there had been a whopping 29-point swing in public opinion, with positive views of immigration now outnumbering negative ones by a 65-26 margin. (This swing is consistent with an increase in favorable opinions about Islam, according to research by YouGov and The Huffington Post.)
That shift has been driven almost entirely by Democrats and Dem-leaning independents, which may signal that the “intensity gap” on this issue is shrinking. It’s hard to overstate how consequential that would be. While polls consistently show that only a minority of Americans favor a punitive, “enforcement-only” approach to undocumented immigration, it’s a vocal, well-organized group, and its preferences have dominated Republican politics without a counterweight of similarly passionate activists on the other side of the issue. The imbalance has given anti-immigration hard-liners veto power over centrist compromises with broad public support—policies like DACA, and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.