Trump's border rhetoric emboldens officials on local level to target immigration, activists say

After watching Donald Trump gain traction on the campaign trail with talk of border walls and mass deportations, Indiana lawmaker Mike Delph decided it was time to take action in his state.

This year, Delph helped convince his colleagues in the state Senate to let him lead a special commission to study illegal immigration in Indiana. A Republican who has long supported stricter immigration measures, Delph said Trump’s campaign had helped push the issue “to a new level.”

“It’s certainly made it easier for me to get the attention of my colleagues,” Delph said. “I felt politically the timing was right.”

He and others say Trump’s success in the Republican presidential race has helped embolden those who favor stricter immigration enforcement at the local level. In Indiana and more than a dozen other states, lawmakers have pushed legislation targeting immigrants in the country without legal authorization in a year when Trump’s campaign has thrust the issue into the spotlight.

In Arizona, legislators recently considered a law that would have stiffened sentences for immigrants in the country illegally and another that would have prevented such immigrants from acquiring city-issued identification cards.

In Georgia, legislators pushed a constitutional amendment declaring English the official language of state government.

In Wisconsin, Louisiana and at least 14 other states, lawmakers have weighed bills that would punish so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to fully cooperate with federal immigration officials, according to the National Immigration Law Center, which tracks such efforts.

While most of those bills have not ended up making it into law -- anti-sanctuary measures in Georgia and North Carolina are among the few exceptions -- Trump's campaign has demonstrated that anxiety over illegal immigration can help mobilize a significant chunk of Republican voters.

At his often-raucous rallies around the country, Trump's crowds sometimes spontaneously erupt into shouts of "Build that Wall!" A recent Pew Research Center report found that 84% of his supporters favored his plan to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, compared with 56% of Republican voters who preferred another candidate for the GOP nomination.

Trump's success "is a flashing neon sign for Republicans and all politicians that this issue really matters, and voters want to see our laws enforced,” said Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who has helped draft legislation aimed at immigrants in the U.S. illegally for other states, including Arizona's controversial SB-1070.

That law requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested when there is reasonable suspicion that the person is not in the U.S. legally. Several other parts of the law were struck down by the Supreme Court.

"There is no question that this is the driving force behind his campaign," said Kobach, who has endorsed Trump. "Illegal immigration always gets the largest applause lines."

A spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors a border wall and a reduction of both legal and illegal immigration, said his group had seen an increase in local activists who reach out for help enacting immigration restriction measures in their communities.

“I think that the intensity of feeling is probably higher than it ever has been before,” said the spokesman, Ira Mehlman. “Certainly the fact that immigration has been a prominent issue in the 2016 campaign has provided energy and added to the activism and efforts to implement policy initiatives at the state and local level.”

But Mehlman said he didn't think the uptick in activism was motivated by the “Trump effect” alone. 

Several pro-immigrant policies at the local and federal level have helped spur a backlash, Mehlman said, including President Obama’s attempt in 2014 to shield several million immigrants in the country from deportation and the increase in the number of cities and counties refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Trump’s rise “may be a consequence of unenforced immigration laws as much as it is a driving force behind public opinion that something needs to be done,” Mehlman said.  

In recent years, as Congress has failed to pass comprehensive legislation that would decide the fate of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, activists on both sides of the issue have gone to battle at the state and local level.

Immigrant advocates have more often come out on top. They have won, for example, laws in at least a dozen states that allow immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses.

They have also pushed more than 350 cities and counties around the country to pass ordinances restricting the ability of law enforcement authorities to turn over immigrants in their custody to federal immigration officials.

Advocates say cooperation between jails and immigration agents erodes trust in law enforcement among immigrant communities and can lead to violations of constitutional rights.

Those who favor stricter enforcement highlight crimes allegedly committed by immigrants who were released from custody instead of deported, such as last year’s death of Kate Steinle, a San Francisco woman who police say was shot by an immigrant from Mexico who had recently been released despite a federal order that the jail turn him over to immigration authorities.

Trump, who kicked off his campaign in June with a speech saying Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers to the U.S., helped draw attention to the Steinle case. He held a news conference in California with family members of victims of crimes allegedly committed by immigrants in the country illegally, and he frequently mentions "Kate" on the campaign trail.

Wisconsin state Rep. John Spiros, who introduced a bill this year that would require municipalities to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, said he was motivated by Steinle's death, not the presidential candidate who helped draw attention to it.

"My bill was not motivated because of Donald Trump," said Spiros, whose bill passed the state House but failed in the Senate.

"My bill was motivated because of a killing," he said. "Because the federal government doesn’t want to do anything, we have to do it ourselves."

Bill Ong Hing, an immigration law professor at the University of San Francisco, said he believes there will be a ripple effect of Trump’s candidacy.

“I have absolutely no doubt that the fact that he has thrived largely on anti-immigrant rhetoric is a direct license to local and state government officials who were leaning toward anti-immigrant legislation,” Hing said. “I really think they feel emboldened that he’s thrived and they can do the same thing.”

While Trump has described illegal immigration as a crisis, referring recently to the "record number of people right now that are pouring across the borders of this country," data show otherwise. 

Multiple studies show rates of illegal immigration are declining, with the exception of families fleeing violence in Central America. 

According to recent estimates by the Center for Migration Studies, the number of immigrants living in the country without authorization has fallen to the lowest level since 2003, thanks in part to a major buildup of border security started by President George W. Bush and continued by Obama.

But one Arizona lawmaker who pushed a bill this year that would have barred immigrants in the country illegally from receiving city identification cards said he believes illegal immigration will pick back up soon. 

“They left when the economy tanked because the jobs," said Sen. John Kavanagh, whose bill was a response to a Phoenix proposal to issue identification cards to residents, including those who entered the country illegally, but which failed to get enough votes to pass.

"When the jobs come back, they’ll come back," Kavanagh said. "If we don’t build a wall, we’ll be flooded with illegals.”

Trump’s candidacy had little to do with his support this year for several anti-immigrant measures, he said. 

“We in Arizona never needed permission to pursue immigration enforcement. We’ve always been on the front line."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katelinthicum

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