Elite Republicans tried to ignore them. Now they're shaping Donald Trump's immigration policy

For decades, immigration hard-liners have felt sidelined and taken for granted by Republican presidential candidates, left with dog whistles and policy crumbs. But Donald Trump’s ascent to the top of the Republican ticket has changed their fortunes.

Longtime advocates for shutting the door to new immigrants now hold crucial positions in Trump’s campaign, and many feel, for the first time in recent memory, they have a candidate who is willing to speak plainly about reducing immigration flows and offers their clearest shot yet at influencing, perhaps even drastically altering, U.S. immigration policy.

Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff and poster child for workplace raids and traffic stops, earned a prized seat on Trump’s airplane a few months ago, spending hours with his new close friend. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the fiercest opponent of GOP-backed “amnesty” bills in Congress for the last decade, now smiles and demurs when asked whether he might serve as Trump’s running mate or settle for a Cabinet position.

And NumbersUSA, long on the fringes of Washington lobbying groups with its stance that legal immigration should be reduced, now crows that all those powerful consultants had it wrong when they insisted that the GOP needed to compromise on raising immigration levels to win a presidential election.

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“Trump broke all the rules … got hammered for it, and just kept going,” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president and director of government relations for NumbersUSA.

Trump’s upending of the Republican establishment has sapped clout from many who are used to having it, and empowered others who had grown accustomed to the margins. Nowhere is that reordering more pronounced than the immigration debate, in which Trump’s rise has exposed a widening gap between the party’s elites -- and stalwart allies such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and its voters.

Trump’s ascent vindicates those who argue that working-class voters see immigration as a threat to financial security. But the political argument has only been proved in Republican primaries, meaning Trump’s allies in the immigration policy community could lose their influence if he is defeated in the general election, in which a large Latino turnout favoring Hillary Clinton could doom the GOP candidate.

For now, allies such as Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff whose controversial immigration enforcement tactics prompted an investigation from President Obama’s Justice Department, are relishing the moment. Arpaio said he received a note from Trump three years ago because of their mutual interest in questioning Obama’s birthplace -- an unfounded conspiracy theory -- but did not meet the candidate in person until a year ago, when he introduced Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix. Recently, Arpaio’s ailing wife received an uplifting six-minute phone call from Trump.

Arpaio said he has endorsed Republicans in prior presidential elections, but never with the same fervor. 

“He doesn’t need to go through my wife to hook me,” Arpaio said. “He had me hooked to begin with.”

Sessions may have the deepest ties to Trump among anyone in Congress. In January, one of his top aides, Stephen Miller, became Trump’s senior policy advisor.

Miller, 30, with thinning hair that lends an air of gravitas, has not only become influential in Trump’s campaign, he has unexpectedly emerged as one of Trump’s most fiery warm-up acts, earning him a cult following among Trump’s ardent backers.

“Everybody who stands against Donald Trump are the people who’ve been running this country into the ground,” Miller said during a recent Dallas rally, waving his hand from behind a lectern. “They’re the people who’ve been controlling the levers of power. They’re the people who are responsible for our open border, for our shrinking middle class, for our terrible trade deals. Everything that is wrong with this country today, the people opposing Donald J. Trump are responsible for.”

Miller, who did not respond to a request for comment, would likely assume a key role in a Trump administration. The firebrand has helped position Trump as the furthest right on the issue within a primary field that was already hard-line. During a rally in April, he called Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the most conservative members of Congress, an "Obama ally" who backs a "radical policy of mass migration."

Though many Republicans in Congress have held out against efforts to bring legal status to millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally, the party’s presidential nominees have been willing to compromise. Miller grew up in Santa Monica in the shadow of President Reagan’s 1986 immigration overhaul, which tightened border security while granting amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants who had already crossed illegally.

The last Republican to hold the Oval Office, George W. Bush, tried but failed to pass an overhaul that would have granted a path to legal status for 12 million such immigrants. His chief Senate ally on the issue, Arizona Republican John McCain, won the party’s presidential nomination in 2008 before renouncing his own bill. Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, called for “self-deportation,” in part to assuage conservatives who were concerned about his prior support for Bush’s overhaul.

“President Bush pushed for an amnesty bill at that time that the American people rejected,” Sessions said. “Trump’s on the other side.”

“I don’t think anybody has articulated [as] effectively the impact that this lawlessness is having on wages and security of people,” Sessions added.

Sessions was among Bush’s chief antagonists in Congress, and fought the issue again in 2013, when Republican leaders pushed their party to craft another overhaul with Obama. The plan, which died in the House after Senate approval, was prescribed in a postmortem that followed Romney’s 2012 loss, amid concerns from party leaders that the GOP could no longer compete in national elections unless it changed its tone and passed an overhaul that would remove immigration as a political wedge issue.

“I totally reject that,” Sessions said. “What people care [about] — they want economic growth, they want wages to go up.”

Sessions said he backs Trump on almost every aspect of his immigration rhetoric, though he talks more about the nuts and bolts of crafting policy, working “your way through achieving the goals in a practical manner.”

Sessions’ allies at NumbersUSA are only slightly less trusting in Trump, noting that on some issues they care about, such as curbing the guest-worker program, he has made inconsistent statements. They also view Trump’s persistent call for a border wall as a “symbolic catchphrase” that is less important to enforcement than electronic verification for workers and systems that track entry and exit.

Jenks and Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for NumbersUSA, said they have not had direct contact with the Trump campaign. Yet the influence of Sessions and Miller gives them a confidence they have never had in a presidential candidate.

“The biggest problem with the immigration issue is people don’t know how to talk about it,” said Jenks.

For that, she credits Trump, even though on some issues -- “the Muslim stuff” -- the group does not take a position. (Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” which he called temporary, in December. He and his campaign have suggested a softening of that position in recent days, but have not explicitly changed or revoked his position.)

Nor does NumbersUSA support mass deportations, which Trump has said he would instigate.

Yet many Republicans remain concerned that Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters will not sustain the party in national elections. Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), whose Central Valley district is 71% Latino, said last week that he won’t support Trump, joining some Republican lawmakers in South Florida who represent districts with large Latino populations.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who has worked with Democrats for years on an immigration overhaul, has said he will back Trump, but has not been enthusiastic. In an interview, he blamed Obama and his use of executive authority to halt some deportations for creating resentment among Republicans that empowered “some fringe-element voices to almost sound like they are a majority" in the GOP.  

Romney won only an estimated 27% of the Latino vote, and polls suggest that Trump is faring worse, behind Clinton 62% to 23% among Latinos in one recent Fox News poll. Many analysts have said Trump would need votes from 40% of Latinos to win the election.

Immigration advocates point to California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative intended to crack down on illegal immigration. Voters approved the measure, backed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, and the party has not recovered from voter backlash in the state.

“What happened in California many years ago is what is happening in the country now,” said  Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a Latino advocacy group.

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