The Strategist

Donald Trump, A Terrible Headache for Republicans

09/17/2015 - 16:39

United States is a country built by immigrants, and today more than 45 million people born outside the country live there. Newcomers provide about a third of the population growth (statistically, a new immigrant arrives in the United States every 32 seconds), are considered an important stimulant of economic activity and the source of low-wage labor and highly skilled professionals. GDP produced by immigrants is estimated at more than $ 1.5 trillion. The total annual income of only illegal immigrants reaches 350 billion dollars.

Gage Skidmore
Gage Skidmore
Nevertheless, the United States take a dim view on issues relating to the increasing number of visitors. Opponents of immigration stress that it poses a serious strain on the labor market and social systems of some states. This gives rise to serious tensions not only in society, but also between the federal government, controls immigration policies, and state governments, forced to pay the consequences. Many see the threat for cultural identity in the newcomers. Of a growing concern is the possibility of facing terrorists and members of organized criminal groups, climbing through the hole, the intensification of technological espionage, as well as monitoring of international financial flows, including remittances.
The value of ethnic, racial and religious factors of migration policy increases too, the discussion of which, American politicians and intellectuals avoid for reasons of political correctness. Often, when speaking of ethnic migration, media figures use the term "illegal migration", even if the question of the legality is of secondary importance. Being an opponent of illegal immigration is acceptable, yet acting against the ethnic migration runs the risk of being branded a xenophobe, that means the end of the career.

The problem of migrants today means for the Democrats much less than their opponents. All the main candidates are talking about the need for immigration reform and liberalization policy in this area. Yet, not everything is so simple. The stumbling block for Democrats - labor immigration, both legal and illegal. The Democratic Party is a coalition of organizations, represens the interests not just of minorities, but also of trade unions. From the point of view of latter, immigrants’ willingness to work for little money and no social safety inhibits the growth of wage and increases competition. Therefore, the trade union leaders often oppose the promotion of democracy liberal reforms in the area of migration.

At the same time, Democrats, who favor immigration reform, are divided into those who support the total removal of restrictions to immigration and mass legalization of illegal immigrants, and those who offer radical increase of the quota for highly skilled professionals and sharp cut of the number of arriving under family reunification schemes.

Structural reform of migration policies was listed among Barack Obama’s campaign promises in 2008, providing him support of Hispanic voters. The fact, that Obama has not been able to negotiate with Congress about this reform over the next six and a half years of his presidency, led to a sharp decrease in the activity of Hispanic voters in the midterm elections of 2014, becoming one of the reasons for the crushing defeat of the Democratic Party.   

Since last year's defeat of Democrats has weakened the chances of adoption the new migration law by Congress, Obama signed an executive directive radical on 20 November 2014. In addition to facilitating the entry of highly skilled professionals, this document extends the term for deferred deportation to 600,000 young illegal immigrants, covered by the 2012 Directive, up to three years. The same condition is applied to another 300 thousands young illegal immigrants and 3.7 million parents of immigrants - citizens or permanent residents of the United States (under the condition that they can prove residence in the country since at least 1 January 2010, are not involved in serious violations of the law and commit themselves to pass appropriate examinations and pay registration fees, charges and taxes on all income received during their stay in the United States). The directive does not only delay their deportation with the possibility of further extension of this new status, but also allows them to obtain a work permit card and have social security. In a televised address, Obama said that his directive is no amnesty but aimed at "legalizing" illegal immigrants, what is important for both increasing the efficiency of tax collection, and for law enforcement.

Obama's opponents believe that his directive will cause a new wave of illegal immigrants seeking to give birth in the US. In addition, the presidential initiative is unfair to those who come into the country legally, but often have to wait decades for permanent status or citizenship. However, even if the next president will be a Republican, it does not necessarily mean that he will cancel Obama’s directive - it may cause a reaction too painful, given the rapidly growing share of the Hispanic population and the electorate.

The current situation in the Republican Party - both in terms of migration topics and primaries’ dynamics - can be called tragicomic. Relative political weakness of Obama and conservatives’ hatred led to the formation of an unprecedentedly large (16 people) pool of applicants for the official nomination of the candidate from Republicans. The chief troublemaker – the billionaire Donald Trump. In contrast to the professional politicians, he is independent of sponsors, talking normal human language, and allowing himself to mock rival Republicans. At the time, Trump is not afraid to openly discuss the "dangerous" topics, including the position of racial minorities and women. The fact, that he is supported by about thirty percent of Republicans, shows how Americans are tired of cautious, politically correct and uniformed Washington politicians.

The Republican leadership is confused. Trump dished their schemes, pulling the attention of the press and discrediting the influential candidates. In addition, he is not ideologically conservative. Republican bosses are afraid of Trump’s statements on racial issues and migration policy, particularly appealing for ordinary members of the party. The reasons for this support are simple: although the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (the main pillar of Republicans) are in need of cheap labor immigrants, they do not like the changes in the ethnic and religious composition of the population, caused by the influx of migrants.

Now , the largest minority in the US are Hispanics – people came from Spanish-speaking countries and their descendants. Their total population in 2014 exceeded 55 million (in 1900, it was only 500 thousand). It is expected that by 2060, the proportion of Hispanics (17.4 percent of the population today) will increase to 28.6 per cent. Moreover, the rapid growth of this group is determined not only by immigration but also by high rates of fertility. Of course, all this is reflected in the structure of the electorate. Hispanic’s share rose from 6,1 percent during the 1996 elections to 10.8 percent in 2012 (the share of others during this period fell from 79.2 percent to 71.1 percent). By 2014, Hispanic electorate’s share in the US has reached 11 percent, while the number of voters exceeded 25 million.

Although highly conservative and religious Hispanic could support Republicans, their anti-immigration rhetoric leads to a steady decline in this social stratum’s support for the party representatives. The share of Hispanics, voted for a Republican presidential candidate, has dropped from 40 percent in 2004 (when the re-elected Bush, who had, oddly enough, a very liberal position on migration issues) to 31 percent in 2008 and 27 percent in 2012, when the candidates were, respectively, McCain and Romney. Therefore, the party elite is forced to frantically search for a compromise solution. Despite the fierce opposition of conservative activists, they need it to support at least some aspects of immigration reform in the hope of regaining the sympathy of the Hispanic electorate. After all, the demographic situation is such that victory in the presidential race soon will be virtually impossible without the votes of ethnic minorities.

This makes Republican Party’s management bet on candidates who could count on the support of Hispanics - like Jeb Bush (married to a Mexican woman, fluent in Spanish, known for liberal views on migration issues) and Marco Rubio (son of Cuban immigrants, conservative Florida Senator). Cuban roots are also spotted in the much more populist righty, Senator Ted Cruz.

However, Trump made a mess even here - he not only pushed aside the "controlled" candidates, but also gave the whole anti-immigrant tone of the campaign. Sometimes his rhetoric is openly racist - for example, he claimed that most of people that came from Mexico are criminals, rapists, robbers and murderers. Trump offers to build a wall along the border with Mexico and begin mass deportations of illegal immigrants, and promises to cancel the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows to obtain citizenship to all born in the United States.

Not only did he provoked a storm of protests from Hispanic activists by these statements, but also affected the other prospective candidates, who have adopted anti-immigrant slogans, too. In particular, it was Scott Walker, followed by a number of other Republicans in favor of the abolition of the 14th amendment.

But in general, there is no unity on migration issues within the Republican Party. Republicans can be divided into two blocks with different political interests - in the economic and social conservatives. If the first recognize the benefits of immigrant labor, and at the same time do not want to expand powers of the federal government, the latter are mainly concerned with cultural and ethnic aspects of immigration. Social conservatives are demanding tough measures, even the mass deportation of illegal immigrants, limiting their civil rights and deprivation of all types of social assistance, and the recognition of English as the official language.

In these circumstances, Republican candidates are forced to maneuver between the groups of the electorate at different stages of the election campaign. During the primaries, they are shifting to the right to get the support of party activists, and, if he wins the primaries, they will move to the center to win the support of the wider electorate, including centrists.

Trump has completely changed "volume" and the semantic focus of the election debate, putting immigration at the center of their election platforms and describing the situation in such terms, which no one would dare to use before. Now, other contenders have to formulate their positions on these issues, although would prefer to ignore them.

All this has turned into a true nightmare for the Republican leadership,hog-tied. On the one hand, Trump has impressive support among party activists, so it’s impossible to push him into the shade. On the other hand, the worst scenario would be Trump’s departure from the party and the subsequent positioning himself as a "third" candidate. He would pull away a part of the voting rights, "killing" the official candidate of the Republicans.

Therefore, the Party leadership took a wait in the hope that Trump run into flak, some serious can be revealed or the electorate simply get tired of his escapades. Indeed, Trump showed up too early by the standards of American election campaigns - usually such figures do not reach the finish line. Yet, all is unusual in this cycle, and therefore Republican leaders are beginning to look closely to him – what if, suddenly, this is their chance?

original by Andrey Korobkov, Professor of Politology at University of Tennessee