President Trump is racing to fulfill immigration-related campaign promises as he enters a tough reelection fight against Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Trump’s most memorable promise from the 2016 race was his pledge to build a wall along the United States’s border with Mexico. The administration is touting 200 miles of recently completed border security fencing, on track to reach about 450 miles by the end of the year.
“We’ll have 500 miles just a little bit after the end of the year,” Trump said during his Fox News town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Thursday night.
Trump also extended his executive order temporarily suspending most immigration during a period of high unemployment following the coronavirus lockdowns, expanding it to include many of the guest-worker programs immigration hawks were disappointed to see exempted when the first version of the edict was handed down back in April.
“It seems to me that curtailing the issuance of work visas at a time of massive unemployment is a matter of common sense,” said Jerry Kammer, author of the new book Losing Control: How A Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash That Elected Trump. “But, of course, the immigration lobby’s hunger for foreign workers is insatiable. At times like this, it’s unconscionable.”
“President Trump has repeatedly promised that he would put American workers first, and to his credit, he did just that,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a statement. Stein had been critical of the order before it covered more nonimmigrant temporary workers, but the FAIR told the Washington Examiner it was now “mostly satisfied” with it.
Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and then the general election in part because he vowed to break with the last two presidents of both parties, who were in favor of offering legal status to most illegal immigrants in the U.S. and expanding immigration more generally. He was advised on the issue by restrictionists such as Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller and later endorsed legislation sponsored by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia that would reduce legal immigration levels.
The president has been under fire from Democrats and immigrant rights activists for his record on this issue the entire time he has been in office. But the Trump White House is not uniformly populated by immigration hardliners, and he hasn’t always satisfied immigration hawks either.
Syndicated conservative columnist Ann Coulter famously backed Trump over his tough immigration stance but has spent most of the last four years criticizing him for not completing the border wall or overhauling the system and for breaking with Sessions. The In Trump We Trust author has said she is undecided on whether to vote for Trump this November.
Kammer, a senior research fellow at the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, noted that “Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to make E-Verify mandatory, has now backed away from that commitment.” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican and Trump nemesis, this week touted the system for preventing employers from hiring illegal immigrants.
The Trump campaign is highlighting the president’s immigration record under the banner of “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” citing an 84% reduction in apprehensions along the southern border. Arrests tend to track the number of people trying to enter. “While Joe Biden campaigns on open borders, President Trump is keeping his promise to protect the safety and health of Americans by securing our Southern Borders,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Abigail Marone in a statement.
“The Biden people — and he’s controlled totally by the radical left, as you understand. He’s not controlling it; they’re controlling him,” Trump said at a border security roundtable discussion in Yuma, Arizona, on Tuesday. “They want open borders. They want criminal sanctuaries. They want everything that doesn’t work.”
Trump has fallen behind Biden in his race for a second term. He trails the former vice president by 9.6 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average and is also down in both the Fox News and New York Times/Siena College battleground state polls. Returning to the immigration issue is potentially one way to fire up his base and win back wavering supporters.
“If my speeches ever get a little off,” Trump said during his first campaign, “I just go: ‘We will build a wall!’ You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of maybe thinking about leaving — I can sort of tell the audience — I just say, ‘We will build the wall,’ and they go nuts.”
Trump has held steady among Hispanic voters but has lost ground with white people. While college-educated suburbanites tend to be turned off by his immigration rhetoric, showing he has kept his promises could attract more of the working class.