Trump’s threat to deport millions of immigrants risks backlash in 2020

Border Patrol agents arrest migrants who crossed into the U.S. from Mexico near McAllen, Texas, in March.
(Loren Elliott / AFP/Getty Images)

With his latest threat to round up and deport millions of “illegal aliens,” President Trump left little doubt that racially fraught rhetoric on immigration will be a central part of his run for reelection.

He tried that tactic last year. It failed. His ominous warnings about immigrant criminals pouring in from Mexico may have been a factor in helping Democrats seize control of the House in November’s midterm election, a devastating setback for his Republican allies.

With public opinion running against Trump on his signature issue, illegal immigration poses both risks and opportunities for his 2020 campaign.


It’s a top priority for the predominantly white conservatives who make up Trump’s loyalist base and could drive a strong turnout of those voters.

But his harsh views on immigration could also increase turnout of Democrats and alienate swing voters who are uneasy with Trump’s heated rhetoric.

“What he doesn’t understand is that in communities of color, that sort of raising of the temperature and fearmongering is also going to bring us out,” said Natalia Salgado, senior political strategist at the Center for Popular Democracy, a group that opposes Trump’s immigration policies.

More than 6 in 10 Americans oppose deporting all immigrants who are living illegally in the U.S., a Gallup poll found in January.

President Trump kicks off his reelection campaign Tuesday at a rally in Orlando, Fla.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, dismissed the significance of such findings, saying the president was doing what he believes is right.


“The law is the law,” Murtaugh said. “Either we’re going to enforce our laws and have them mean something or not. And the president is determined to make our immigration laws mean something.”

Trump tweeted on Monday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would start deporting “millions of illegal aliens” within days. But it was unclear whether mass arrests would actually occur because the agency lacks the resources it would need to remove more than a small fraction of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

On Saturday, Trump pulled back from the threat. He said he’d delayed the deportations for two weeks to see whether Democrats and Republicans could agree on a measure to resolve the border migrant crisis.

“If not, Deportations start!” he declared on Twitter.

The public’s tilt against Trump on immigration is part of a tough overall climate for his campaign. About 53% of Americans disapprove of his job performance.

Yet Trump has done little to broaden his support, staying “laser-focused on keeping his base energized,” said Alex Conant, a strategist who worked for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida when he ran against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

A fence on the U.S.-Mexico border separates Tijuana, left, and California.
(Guillermo Arias / AFP/Getty Images)

Some Republicans say Trump would benefit from toning down his rhetoric.

“Where he goes astray is when he talks about rounding up illegals and caravans of people coming across the border,” GOP strategist Alice Stewart said.

She suggested he stick to a straightforward pledge to secure the border and “not get distracted with these phrases that are oftentimes offensive and frightening” to some Americans.

Trump vows to deport ‘millions’ of migrants, but it’s unclear how »

The increasing diversity of the U.S. electorate will heighten Trump’s challenge in 2020. Driven by long-term growth of the Latino and Asian populations, a record one-third of eligible voters will be nonwhite, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Both groups have strongly favored Democrats in recent elections.

In last year’s midterm — after Trump warned that thousands of Central Americans were storming toward the southern border in a caravan — turnout of Latino voters leaped from 6.8 million in the previous midterm, in 2014, to 11.7 million, Pew found. The number of white voters also rose, but less dramatically.

Overall, the share of white voters in midterm elections has slid from 85% in 1990 to 73% in 2018, tracking a similar trend in presidential contests that is unfavorable to Trump.

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Trump’s emphasis on immigration last fall came at an especially high cost for Republicans in the Southwest, where Latinos and Asians led the voter revolt. Republicans lost a U.S. Senate seat in Nevada and another in Arizona, along with other races down the ballot.

In 2016, Trump lost Nevada and Colorado, both swing states that Republican George W. Bush won twice. Trump won Arizona by just 3.5 percentage points. Once solidly Republican, it is now in play for Democrats, thanks partly to Trump’s inflammatory approach to immigration.

“That is not a recipe for success,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster. “It seems irrational to me.”

Only a few of the nearly two dozen Democratic contenders for president have released a detailed immigration agenda.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s proposal is the most far-reaching, for now. Among other features, it would create a “Marshall Plan,” modeled after U.S. aid to European allies ravaged by World War II, to improve living conditions in the violence-racked Central American countries that immigrants have been fleeing.

Honduran migrants leave Arriaga in southern Mexico en route to the U.S. last October.
(Guillermo Arias / AFP/Getty Images)

For the most part, the Democrats have stuck to criticizing Trump’s stalled plan to build a border wall, his abandonment of President Obama’s rules protecting 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and — most emphatically — the separation of children from their migrant parents at the border.

“It is inhumane, it is irresponsible, and it is contrary to who we are,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California told MSNBC recently.

Democrats’ daily attacks are a measure of how deeply the issue resonates for partisans on both sides.

“I think it’s safe to say Democrats are going to be highly motivated to vote in this election, just like they were in the midterms,” said Conant, the GOP strategist. “The president’s challenge is to make sure Republicans are equally motivated.”

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.