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February 21, 2024
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Voters want control of the border, but do they want Trump immigrant roundups and detention camps?

Even though Americans support immigration, they have been willing to accept tougher prescriptions for enforcement — and their willingness could test how far hard-liners can go in 2024 with anti-immigrant proposals.

Democrats, like Republicans, have been joining the drumbeat that there is a “crisis” at the border as the numbers of people the Border Patrol says it encounters hit record levels.

Amid all this, former President Donald Trump promises to expand on the hard-line immigration policies of his first term, setting off alarm bells among immigration advocates and even some Republican conservatives.

Trump has escalated his language with declarations that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country,” echoing Nazi rhetoric; proposing such drastic measures as a massive deportation sweep modeled after the Eisenhower-era “Operation Wetback”; and calling for detention camps that some see as similar to Japanese internment camps.

Trump’s plans include ending the constitutional right to birthright citizenship, invoking a World War II law that allows the president to unilaterally detain and deport people who are not U.S. citizens and cutting off funding for transportation and shelter for people who lack legal status in the country, The Associated Press reported.

All of it seems to be happening as there are signs of cracks in Americans’ historic support for immigration.

A June Gallup poll found Americans still think immigration is good for the country, at 68%, but that is the lowest percentage since 2014, when it was 63%, and down from 77% in 2020.

A recent NBC News poll found that 3 in 4 registered voters favored Congress’ spending more money on border security to address immigration.   

Meanwhile, leaders in blue cities that have long welcomed immigrants complain of stretched resources with the influx of newcomers shuttled from Texas and other states. Dividing lines are emerging as immigrants who have worked for years without legal status see newly arrived asylum-seekers from countries like Venezuela get work permits.

This month a number of immigration advocacy and progressive groups warned that Americans should take a breather and be careful what they wish for as they demand that something be done about the “border crisis.”

“Trump’s immigration plan is not just about immigrants. Citizens are at risk, too,” said Tom Jawetz, the senior fellow for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.

With immigration a top issue for voters in the 2024 elections, hard-liners already have been testing whether they can slip into those cracks in voters’ support for immigration, while progressives worry that Americans do not understand the wider impact of some of the policies.

“What Trump is describing is not just about immigration policy. He’s not just firing up his voters for a primary season. He’s openly talking about changing who we are as a nation, who is considered American, who belongs to this country,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. “This is not normal, and we collectively cannot become desensitized to his rhetoric, because we already know the dangerous consequences of words and his actions.”

Swept up in an immigration dragnet

Todd Schulte, the president and executive director of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group, said that “when you are talking about going after 1 million, 2 million, 3 million people a year based on their immigration status, you are talking about violating the civil liberties and basic rights of Americans who were born in this country and tens of millions of immigrants who come to this country every year.”

That happened in Arizona.

Arizona’s SB 1070 law, signed in 2010, allows officers enforcing other laws to investigate the citizenship or immigration statuses of suspects and people they have stopped. The law initially went further, requiring officers to investigate the citizenship and immigration statuses of everyone they stopped, arrested or detained, leading to lawsuits as mostly Latino residents said they were unfairly targeted. Eventually, the courts struck down parts of SB 1070.

But some states may test whether the conservative Supreme Court would be more open to revisiting the Arizona law to allow states to enforce immigration laws, a jurisdiction reserved for the federal government.

In Texas, where Hispanics outnumber whites, and in Florida, where Hispanics are about a third of the population, Republican governors have enacted hard-line immigration policies, and communities are already seeing the impact.

A law Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in May invalidates out-of-state driver’s licenses for undocumented people, makes hospitals ask for patients’ immigration statuses, sets a 15-year punishment for anyone found transporting undocumented people from outside the state into Florida and requires businesses to use an electronic system to verify employees are eligible to work in the U.S.

The law has led workers and families to flee, including some citizens with family members who are not citizens. It has interfered with some of the work of religious people whose faith requires them to assist people regardless of their immigration status.

In Texas, the state is trying to create its own immigration arrest force. A bill awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would allow all peace officers in the state to arrest people they say entered the country illegally.

Also awaiting Abbott’s signature are bills that would provide $1.54 billion for border security, including for border wall construction, and one that would assess 10-year penalties for smuggling or transporting people without legal status.

The latter bill worries faith leaders who minister to congregations regardless of their immigration status, as is the case in Florida.

“This language of an immigrant crisis is really the result of inaction. Congress refuses to act and then says we have a crisis. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say we aren’t going to do anything and then say we have a crisis,” said Gabriel Salguero, the pastor of The Gathering Place, an Assemblies of God congregation in Orlando, Florida, and founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

The Gallup poll found Americans’ desire for less immigration has ticked up to 41%, the highest since 2014.

Policy vs. politics

Amid Republican criticism of Biden’s handling of border and immigration issues, the Biden administration has touted its efforts to stem illegal immigration through enforcement and an expansion of legal pathways for those who are eligible.

A commentary by the conservative Cato Institute based on its analysis of immigration actions under Trump and Biden found “Mr. Trump’s policies resulted in far fewer removals in absolute terms and a slightly higher percentage of released border crossers than Mr. Biden’s,” and it posited that no administration can really eradicate migration.

But Mike Madrid, a Latino political consultant who is a registered Republican, said immigration is being framed as a security issue and a security threat and that when it is coupled with constant images from the border, these factors “are clearly having an impact when Americans are already feeling crime is an issue already and they view the border as something that can and should be controlled.”

Madrid said that with voters, including Latino voters, demanding more border security, the door opens for some of Trump’s rhetoric and positions, along with those of the Republican governors.

“If Joe Biden doesn’t start articulating a clear, precise border security policy,” he said, “they will continue to lose Latino voters and all voters at a time when they can’t afford to lose any.”

José Parra, a political consultant who was an aide to the late Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said that while there has been a slight shift in Americans’ support for immigration, “I think it is a perception that the border is a bit out of control,” adding, “I think Americans still support handling immigration in an orderly and humane way.”

Parra said Trump is overreaching, as he did when he approved intentionally taking and separating migrant children from their mothers and fathers.

Any “show me your papers” policies or Operation Wetback-like roundups could easily ensnare Latino Americans. They could also galvanize Americans against him and Republicans, which happened in Arizona and, long before that, in California, when the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 was implemented, he said.

Suzanne Gamboa

Suzanne Gamboa is a national reporter for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com

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