Why Trump’s alarmist message on immigration may be resonating beyond his base

Roughly two-thirds of Americans now disapprove of how Biden is handling border security, including about 4 in 10 Democrats, 55% of Black adults and 73% of Hispanic adults, according to a poll

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump visits the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, as seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico, February 29, 2024
Donald Trump visits the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, as seen from Piedras Negras, Mexico, February 29, 2024.Go Nakamura (REUTERS)

The video shared by former President Donald Trump features horror movie music and footage of migrants purportedly entering the U.S. from countries including Cameroon, Afghanistan and China. Shots of men with tattoos and videos of violent crime are set against close-ups of people waving and wrapping themselves in American flags.

“They’re coming by the thousands,” Trump says in the video, posted on his social media site. “We will secure our borders. And we will restore sovereignty.”

In his speeches and online posts, Trump has ramped up anti-immigrant rhetoric as he seeks the White House a third time, casting migrants as dangerous criminals “poisoning the blood” of America. Hitting the nation’s deepest fault lines of race and national identity, his messaging often relies on falsehoods about migration. But it resonates with many of his core supporters going back a decade, to when “build the wall” chants began to ring out at his rallies.

President Joe Biden and his allies discuss the border very differently. The Democrat portrays the situation as a policy dispute that Congress can fix and hits Republicans in Washington for backing away from a border security deal after facing criticism from Trump.

But in a potentially worrying sign for Biden, Trump’s message appears to be resonating with key elements of the Democratic coalition that Biden will need to win over this November.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans now disapprove of how Biden is handling border security, including about 4 in 10 Democrats, 55% of Black adults and 73% of Hispanic adults, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in March.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 45% of Americans described the situation as a crisis, while another 32% said it was a major problem.

Vetress Boyce, a Chicago-based racial justice activist, was among those who expressed frustration with Biden’s immigration policies and the city’s approach as it tries to shelter newly arriving migrants. She argued Democrats should be focusing on economic investment in Black communities, not newcomers.

“They’re sending us people who are starving, the same way Blacks are starving in this country. They’re sending us people who want to escape the conditions and come here for a better lifestyle when the ones here are suffering and have been suffering for over 100 years,” Boyce said. “That recipe is a mixture for disaster. It’s a disaster just waiting to happen.”

Gracie Martinez is a 52-year-old Hispanic small business owner from Eagle Pass, Texas, the border town that Trump visited in February when he and Biden made same-day trips to the state. Martinez said she once voted for former President Barack Obama and is still a Democrat, but now backs Trump — mainly because of the border.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “It’s tons and tons of people and they’re giving them medical and money, phones,” she said, complaining those who went through the legal immigration system are treated worse.

Priscilla Hesles, 55, a teacher who lives in Eagle Pass, Texas, described the current situation as “almost an overtaking” that had changed the town.

“We don’t know where they’re hiding. We don’t know where they’ve infiltrated into and where are they going to come out of,” said Hesles, who said she used to take an evening walk to a local church, but stopped after she was shaken by an encounter with a group of men she alleged were migrants.

Immigration will almost certainly be one of the central issues in November’s election, with both sides spending the next six months trying to paint the other as wrong on border security.

The president’s reelection campaign recently launched a $30 million ad campaign targeting Latino audiences in key swing states that includes a digital ad in English and Spanish highlighting Trump’s past description of Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.”

The White House has also mulled a series of executive actions that could drastically tighten immigration restrictions, effectively going around Congress after it failed to pass the bipartisan deal Biden endorsed.

“Trump is a fraud who is only out for himself,” said Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz. “We will make sure voters know that this November.”

Trump will campaign Tuesday in Wisconsin and Michigan this week, where he is expected to again tear into Biden on immigration. His campaign said his event in the western Michigan city of Grand Rapids will focus on what it alleged was “Biden’s Border Bloodbath.”

The former president calls recent record-high arrests for southwest border crossings an “invasion” orchestrated by Democrats to transform America’s very makeup. Trump accuses Biden of purposely allowing criminals and potential terrorists to enter the country unchecked, going so far as to claim the president is engaged in a “conspiracy to overthrow the United States of America.”

He also casts migrants — many of them women and children escaping poverty and violence — as “poisoning the blood” of America with drugs and disease and claimed some are “not people.” Experts who study extremism warn against using dehumanizing language in describing migrants.

There is no evidence that foreign governments are emptying their jails or mental asylums as Trump says. And while conservative news coverage has been dominated by several high-profile and heinous crimes allegedly committed by people in the country illegally, the latest FBI statistics show overall violent crime in the U.S. dropped again last year, continuing a downward trend after a pandemic-era spike.

Studies have also found that people living in the country illegally are far less likely than native-born Americans to have been arrested for violent, drug and property crimes.

“Certainly the last several months have demonstrated a clear shift in political support,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the immigrant resettlement group Global Refuge and a former Obama administration and State Department official.

“I think that relates to the rhetoric of the past several years,” she said, “and just this dynamic of being outmatched by a loud, extreme of xenophobic rhetoric that hasn’t been countered with reality and the facts on the ground.”

Part of what has made the border such a salient issue is that its impact is being felt far from the border.

Trump allies, most notably Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have used state-funded buses to send more than 100,000 migrants to Democratic-led cities like New York, Denver and Chicago, where Democrats will hold this summer’s convention. While the program was initially dismissed as a publicity stunt, the influx has strained city budgets and left local leaders scrambling to provide emergency housing and medical care for new groups of migrants.

Local news coverage, meanwhile, has often been negative. Viewers have seen migrants blamed for everything from a string of gang-related New Jersey robberies to burglary rings targeting retail stores in suburban Philadelphia to measles cases in parts of Arizona and Illinois.

Abbott has deployed the Texas National Guard to the border, placed concertina wire along parts of the Rio Grande in defiance of U.S. Supreme Court orders, and has argued his state should be able to enforce its own immigration laws.

Some far-right internet sites have begun pointing to Abbott’s actions as the first salvo in a coming civil war. And Russia has also helped spread and amplify misleading and incendiary content about U.S. immigration and border security as part of its broader efforts to polarize Americans. A recent analysis by the firm Logically, which tracks Russian disinformation, found online influencers and social media accounts linked to the Kremlin have seized on the idea of a new civil war and efforts by states like Texas to secede from the union.

Amy Cooter, who directs research at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, worries the current wave of civil war talk will only increase as the election nears. So far, it has generally been limited to far-right message boards. But immigration is enough of a concern generally that its political potency is intensified, Cooter said.

“Non-extremist Americans are worried about this, too,” she said. “It’s about culture and perceptions about who is an American.”

In the meantime, there are people like Rudy Menchaca, an Eagle Pass bar owner who also works for a company that imports Corona beer from Mexico and blamed the problems at the border for hurting business.

Menchaca is the kind of Hispanic voter Biden is counting on to back his reelection bid. The 27-year-old said he was never a fan of Trump’s rhetoric and how he portrayed Hispanics and Mexicans. “We’re not all like that,” he said.

But he also said he was warming to the idea of backing the former president because of the reality on the ground.

“I need those soldiers to be around if I have my business,” Menchaca said of Texas forces dispatched to the border. “The bad ones that come in could break in.”

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