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How Donald Trump turned the immigration debate from reform to 'anchor babies'

How Donald Trump turned the immigration debate from reform to 'anchor babies'
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pull down a banner from immigration rights protesters as Trump speaks in Phoenix last summer. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

At a recent anti-immigrant rally in the Inland Empire, where activists stood on a street corner chanting, "Help America, not illegals," several sported the same white T-shirt. On it, in large blue letters, was a name: "Trump."

This has been a satisfying summer for those who favor stricter immigration enforcement, thanks in no small part to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

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Less than a year ago, activists watched angrily as President Obama took sweeping executive action to shield millions of people in the country without legal status from deportation. But in a few short months, Trump has helped flip the national dialogue and given rise to a new surge of calls to ramp up deportations and wall off the Mexican border.

In Trump, anti-immigrant activists have found a brash and unapologetic celebrity spokesman – one whose impenitence was on display Tuesday when he tangled over immigration with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos after briefly kicking him out of a news conference.

Trump's outrage over crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally has spurred congressional assaults on "sanctuary city" policies. His proposal to end citizenship for children born to immigrants without legal status has forced more-moderate Republican presidential candidates to the right, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and others using the controversial phrase "anchor babies."

"It's a good time for us," said longtime anti-immigrant activist Robin Hvidston, whose group, We the People Rising, helped organize the rally in Ontario over the weekend. "Donald Trump has brought these issues to the front burner. Does it feel like public opinion is shifting? I'd say yes."

A certain whiplash has come to define the immigration debate in recent years in the absence of a comprehensive fix to a system that all sides say is broken. Fierce battles play out episodically in Washington and at the state and local level, with activists on both sides trading defeats and victories.

Now the divisive issue is once again at the forefront of the presidential campaign — a fate Republican Party leaders hoped to avoid after 2012, when they ascribed their White House loss in part to their failure to win over large numbers of Latinos.

Recently, it seemed the immigration debate had swung in favor of immigrant advocates. Polls show a large majority of Americans support a path to citizenship, and advocates have won important victories at the local level, with driver's licenses, healthcare and financial aid at public universities now available to immigrants without legal status in some states.

In November, after congressional Republicans repeatedly blocked efforts to pass an immigration overhaul bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the country illegally, Obama acted on his own. Advocates celebrated when he announced that he would protect up to 5 million immigrants with long-standing ties to the U.S. from deportation.

But a judge's ruling in February to put Obama's program on hold suddenly halted the momentum. And Trump's rise appears to have only accelerated what some see as a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment.

For immigrant advocacy groups, many of which had hired extra staff and even expanded office space in anticipation of an influx of applicants for Obama's program, this summer has been a period of soul-searching and playing defense.

After Obama announced his immigration actions last fall, "everybody was really excited, and we declared victory," said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream. "I remember my dad crying and feeling like he finally had hope. Now people are frustrated and people are disappointed and people are angry."

Since his campaign kickoff speech in June, in which he brazenly called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and criminals, Trump has espoused rhetoric that appears designed to rile immigrant advocates and fire up their adversaries. Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said Trump's campaign is "normalizing" anti-immigrant ideas and racist rhetoric long considered fringe views.

His campaign has been embraced by those on the extreme right on immigration. The Daily Stormer, a website that has called for anti-immigrant violence, endorsed Trump for president. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce all forms of immigration, praised Trump's recent policy paper on immigration as the "American workers' Bill of Rights."

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But Trump's calls to end birthright citizenship, erect an impenetrable border fence and triple the number of immigration agents are also finding a broader audience. Polls show him with strong support across Republican demographics.

Several leading groups that advocate for stricter immigration enforcement, including Numbers U.S.A. and Californians for Population Stabilization, report that their organizations have seen an uptick in Facebook and Web traffic in recent months.

"People are waking up," said Toni Holle, 60, a tea party activist from Chino Hills. "I think some people were afraid to say that they were against illegal immigration because, you know, you don't want to be called a racist. With Donald Trump at the forefront, people feel more at ease stepping out with their views. I think people are willing to stand up and say, 'No more.'"

Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, said Trump "has tapped into an underlying, very angry current."

But he pointed out that there are fewer organized nativist extremist groups than a decade ago, when the vigilante Minuteman Project stationed armed activists at the Mexican border.

Many immigrant supporters say Trump represents a minority view that is getting extra airtime now because it is Republican primary season.

"You've got a constituency that is struggling with change," said Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who sponsored several bills that helped immigrants in the country illegally while he was a state assemblyman. "It's not the America they thought they were going to grow up in. Trump's response has been to scapegoat immigrants. He says, 'Blame them.'"

That doesn't mean it should be ignored, Cedillo said.

"It's dangerous rhetoric," he said, citing a recent case in Boston in which a man praised Trump's immigration views after allegedly assaulting a homeless Latino man.

In Trump, many see echoes of former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who branded himself as tough on immigration during his 1994 reelection campaign. The Republican also supported Proposition 187, a measure that denied immigrants in the country illegally access to public services.

Wilson was reelected and Proposition 187 passed. But California Republicans paid a price, as Latinos launched campaigns to register huge number of voters and eventually turned the state blue.

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That chapter is a lesson for how immigrant advocates should respond now, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "We've got to build more political power across the state and across the country," she said.

Trump's campaign is an attack on all Latinos, she said. "He's ignoring everything that we are to this country, all of our contributions. It's a slap in the face over and over again."

Twitter: @katelinthicum

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