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Analysis: Trump’s return to anti-immigration message takes hold among Republicans

By John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call
Published: January 13, 2024, 6:00am

Lawmakers return this week to a standoff over immigration and the southern border, but they are not the only ones focusing on the hot-button issue.

Former President Donald Trump has drawn outrage — as well as comparisons to Adolf Hitler — over his recent comments about migrants “poisoning the blood” of America. But the scorn also means the GOP presidential front-runner has been focusing heavily on an issue that was a cornerstone of his successful 2016 White House bid and could bolster his campaign for a new term in 2024.

That is, of course, if the impulsive former president can stay on message.

“A vote for Donald Trump in these caucuses is a vote to secure our border. It’s a vote to stop the invasion of millions of people — from parts unknown,” Trump said Friday at a rally in Sioux Center, Iowa. “We don’t even know where the hell they come from.”

Trump went on to lambaste “our open and broken border crumbling into rubble,” contending the United States is rivaling “third-world countries” and a “banana republic” in terms of immigration, adding: “It’s not under control. It’s totally out of control.”

The former president also contended, without providing any evidence, that the Biden administration is allowing “millions” of migrants over the Mexico border illegally so they can vote for Biden and Democrats in November. “They hate our country,” he said of Democrats. “And I believe … that that’s why they’re letting, allowing these people to come in — and people that don’t speak our language. They’re signing them up to vote.”

Those and other weekend comments on immigration and the border at rallies in the Hawkeye State, which holds the first GOP presidential nominating contest next week, were less inflammatory than a remark that drew comparisons to the Nazi leader last month, when Trump said migrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”

The former president’s calls for hardline immigration policies have been echoed by his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill, particularly House Republicans, who have declined to join bipartisan Senate border talks with White House officials. House GOP leaders have been insistent that the Senate merely pass the conservative immigration measure that passed the House in May with every Democrat and two Republicans voting against it.

With Trump expected to cruise to his party’s presidential nomination, his beating the campaign-trail drum about a wide-open southern border under Biden is expected to cause House GOP members to further dig in in opposition to any White House-Senate agreement that might be worked out.

To be sure, Trump’s warnings about migrants illegally flowing over the U.S.-Mexico border and flooding into big and small American cities has taken root in congressional Republicans’ rhetoric. Expect that to continue through Election Day.

“Every state in America now is a border state. We have to understand that,” Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., told Fox News last week. “Everyone in America is being impacted by what’s going on at the southern border, whether it be through illegal immigrants coming to your cities or whether it be from illegal drugs, illicit drugs coming to your city, infesting our communities. We are all being impacted by this, and not in a good way at all.”

Carter’s “infesting” remarks conjure mental images of rodents — not unlike Trump’s recent description of his political enemies as “vermin.”

Speaker Mike Johnson, a longtime Trump ally, distanced himself in an interview with CBS that aired Sunday on “Face the Nation” from Trump’s exact words about “poisoning the blood” of America — but Johnson endorsed Trump’s immigration warnings.

“That’s not language I would use,” the Louisiana Republican said, before adding moments later: “Well, it’s not hateful. What President Trump is trying to advance is his America first priority. And I think that makes sense to a lot of people.”

A big question as the election cycle plods forward will be the extent to which the Trump-GOP immigration alarm resonates with independent voters in swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In the “Make America Great Again” philosophy that now dominates GOP politics, Trump and others often cast migrants in the same light as Democrats, contending both are “destroying” the country.

If Trump’s GOP-influencing rhetoric on immigration is hurting him or his party among voters, they are not revealing any such worries to pollsters. For instance, an Associated Press-NORC survey conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 4 found that U.S. adults wanting the federal government to work on immigration grew from 27 percent in late 2022 to 35 percent in late 2023.

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Like on other top issues on the public’s agenda — including inflation, the economy, crime and the Middle East conflict — respondents to an Ipsos/ABC News poll trusted Republicans more than Democrats to handle immigration.

Thirty-six percent of U.S. adults put more trust in the GOP on immigration, compared with 24 percent who trusted Democrats, the November by Ipsos-ABC found. The poll also found Republicans had a 35 percent to 21 percent edge on curbing inflation, a 35 percent to 25 percent advantage on handling the broader economy, and a 26 percent to 19 percent lead on dealing with the war between Israel and Hamas.

Notably, candidates from both parties appear to have a chance to grab the upper hand on each issue — including immigration — before Election Day. That’s because 31 percent of respondents said they trusted neither party or opted to skip the question. The figure was similar for the aforementioned issues, including 32 percent who sided with neither party or skipped the question about paring still-high prices.