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Why Trump is struggling with immigration

Immigration is a difficult issue for even experienced national politicians to navigate. Its mix of social and cultural implications makes it resonate with voters. But they don't agree on solutions.

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a Hispanic advisory roundtable meeting in New York, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. At right is Jovita Carranza, former Small Business Administration Deputy Administrator.
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Donald Trump’s recent struggle to produce a coherent immigration policy may reflect the struggle of the United States as a whole with a difficult issue on which the public is deeply split and each side’s solutions appear impractical or unpalatable to the other.

Trump’s political problem is that he centered his primary campaign on a lot of tough positions against undocumented immigrants. Build the wall! Throw them out! That worked for him for more than a year. His supporters thrilled to this message. Polls show Trump voters are much more likely to back such actions as mass deportation than other Republicans.

But Trump has discovered that on immigration the loudest voices are driving the debate, and that’s the side he’s on. On this issue he’s not where the country is. He needs softer immigration policies, or at least a less-harsh tone, if he’s going to attract the college-educated whites he’ll need to win the election.

“It is very clear that there is not an anti-immigration majority in the United States,” William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, told the journal of the George W. Bush Institute earlier this year.

Yet immigration is a difficult issue for even experienced national politicians to navigate. Its mix of social and cultural implications makes it something about which some voters care deeply.

A majority of voters may not be anti-immigrant, but that does not mean the US welcomes all comers with open arms. Polls show majorities want immigrants to learn English and adapt to American cultural values. Since 1965, Gallup has annually polled on the question, “should immigration to the US increase, decrease, or stay the same?” The winner is usually “decrease,” though often by a narrow margin. The largest vote that “increase” has ever received is 27 percent.

“I’ve never seen a poll in which Americans favored increasing immigration,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute, at a Brookings seminar on the issue in June.

Trump himself has made the issue more salient. In winning the GOP nomination while espousing tough policies, he has made immigration something of a litmus test for future Republican Party nominees. To Trump supporters, Republicans who support a path to legal status for those present in the US illegally are part of a “corrupt” GOP establishment. Opposing such a path, as Trump does, proves one’s outsider bona fides.

But does Trump oppose a path to legalization – “amnesty,” as opponents call it? That seems less clear now than it did only a few days ago. If Trump is trying to broaden his appeal on immigration, he has not done a good job, at least to this point. Such broadening is not easy, for reasons discussed above.

Still, Trump’s pivoting has been clumsy: he’s said “there could be a softening” on his immigration positions, and that “I don’t think it’s a softening.” He’s said that there’s “no legalization ... no amnesty” for those here illegally, but that people also tell him that “to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.”

In the past he’s insisted there will be a new deportation force to round up and deport the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the US. More recently campaign manager Kellyanne Conway played that down, noting he hasn’t mentioned it since last November.

Trump has opposed “birthright citizenship,” under which children born in the US are automatically citizens, as a “magnet for illegal immigration.” Running mate Gov. Mike Pence has played that down, saying it is a “subject for the future.”

“Today we know less about [Trump’s] plans on immigration – his signature issue – than we did a week ago,” write NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann on Tuesday morning.

Maybe that will be cleared up by Trump’s Wednesday night speech on the issue in Arizona. It is also possible Trump will just soften his tone, perhaps by vowing to pursue policies in a “humane” manner, while continuing to straddle on actual proposals.

Whether his previous proposals are practical is a further question. The fact is that Trump voters and others who support much tougher immigration positions consider the need for drastic moves imperative. But opponents and many Washington experts think they would be impossible to implement.

That’s the conventional DC wisdom. A wall the length of the border, financed by Mexico? It would cost tens of billions and takes years to build, and would in any case be ineffective. Can any president actually round up and deport 11 million people now resident in the US without appearing totalitarian? Unlikely. US citizens would need to be complicit in the roundup, with employers turning in employees, and neighbor informing on neighbor.

“All of [Trump’s] ideas ... so far are so completely absurd. They aren’t feasible,” said FiveThirtyEight senior writer Anna Maria Barry-Jester in a recent discussion on the subject.

But here’s the other side: 82 percent of Trump supporters back the building of such a wall. So do 66 percent of Republicans, according to figures from the public opinion research group PRRI.

To them, the wall may represent a barrier, real or symbolic, against what they perceive as the cultural and social changes washing over the United States. Many of Trump’s voters say they are afraid – afraid that their kids won’t do as well as they have, afraid they won’t recognize the US in 20 years, afraid their retirement’s aren’t secure.

Thus for the loudest voices, immigration isn’t just one issue among many. It’s the issue, a lynchpin, something they care deeply about.

“Trying to make anxious people feel comfortable about these issues right now is going to be a really tough sell,” said William Galston at the Bush Institute earlier this year.

Yet the deep fissures in the US on this can be seen in non-GOP attitudes towards the wall. Only 23 percent of Democrats, and 40 percent of independents, favor its construction. Crunch all the groups together and 58 percent of Americans oppose the wall’s building.

There’s Donald Trump’s political problem in sum. He needs to reach out to attract some of that 58 percent to win the Oval Office. But if he does, what will his base think?

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