In immigration speech, Donald Trump spurns softened tone and threatens Republican future

Donald Trump’s aggressively tough speech on immigration buried the notion that he planned to pivot away from the posture that got him the Republican nomination to a gentler position tailored for more moderate general election voters, Republicans included.

It also may have buried his party’s strategy for long-term survival — the effort to appeal to the Latino and Asian voters who are replacing the waning numbers of white voters on whom the GOP has long depended.

Trump’s Wednesday night remarks made clear that he intends to try to win the presidency with the group that won him the nomination — mostly male, white voters who feel stressed by the economy, the rapid changes in American society or both — in defiance of fears even among other Republicans that such a base is not big enough to secure the White House.

Nothing in his speech served to expand his reach among minority Americans. For some Republicans who have worked for decades to diversify their party, the result felt apocalyptic.

Mike Madrid, a California GOP strategist who has sought to broaden the party’s reach among Latinos and other non-white voters, declared himself “stunned” at Trump’s approach.

“We’re witnessing the end of the party,” he said. “I now know what my father meant in 1980 when he told me the party he grew up with” — in that case, the Democrats’ — “was no longer the party he felt comfortable in.”

Republicans for decades have debated what was required to attract the minority voters who grow more influential each presidential cycle: Was it a softening of policy on immigration, or merely a softened tone toward immigrants?

Few considered what Trump delivered Wednesday night: a speech that was hardened in both policy and tone.

Trump reiterated his call for a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. He said that his immediate priority as president would be deporting those undocumented immigrants involved in crimes, but also asserted that no one in the country without proper documents would be outside the reach of deportation officers.

He said that even those brought here illegally as babies would be subject to being deported, and that all immigrants here without legal authorization would have to return to their country of origin to seek future return.

He also expanded on a plan to curb legal immigration and said he would set in motion a system by which future applicants would be judged by unspecified accomplishments — a standard that could be unattainable by many current immigrants. 

Dividing immigrant families, while unfortunate, might be necessary, he suggested, because “our greatest compassion must be for our American citizens.”

Trump referred repeatedly to “criminal aliens” — words that are taken as a slap by many Latinos — and painted a world in which violent hordes were streaming over the border to target Americans. (Both crime and immigration levels remain near historic lows.)

Earlier in the day, during a quick visit with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Trump had praised Latino immigrants as “spectacular” and “hard-working.” But by Wednesday night he was casting them and other immigrants as something more akin to a blight.

“No one will be exempt. … Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump said. He added later, with a sharp edge, that “people will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized. Not gonna work that way. Those days are over.”

The views Trump expressed have an intense appeal among his most loyal supporters, but not among a majority of rank-and-file Republicans.

Until recently, changes to the country’s immigration rules have been a bipartisan priority. President Reagan signed a measure into law in 1986 that gave amnesty to millions of those in the country illegally. Midway through his presidency, George W. Bush unsuccessfully sought a path to citizenship for those without proper documents.

Since 2013, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, majorities of both Republicans and Democrats have said those here illegally should be able to stay under some conditions. Overall, 74% of Americans in a recent Pew survey said they favored allowing such immigrants legal protection. Only 23% disagreed.

Recently, however, Republican leaders, concerned about political retaliation from immigration opponents, have drawn a more conservative line than those sentiments might suggest. Their party already has suffered for it.

Bush, in his 2004 reelection campaign, won the support of 40% of Latino voters, according to exit surveys. Eight years later, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who tangled himself in immigration politics by suggesting that Latinos should “self-deport,” won only 27%.

Worse yet for Republicans, as their numbers have slumped among Latinos — and Asians, who vote similarly and are likewise intensely interested in immigration policy — the sizes of those groups have grown.

A Pew study of statewide exit polling showed that by 2012, Latinos made up almost 2 in 5 voters in New Mexico, for example, contributing greatly to its turn from being a swing state to a reliably Democratic one in presidential contests.

Minority voter numbers in Nevada, Florida and Colorado also have grown dramatically, pushing those states to the left. Arizona, where Trump made his remarks, represents an alluring target for Democrats this year because of its expanded Latino population.

And of course California, once a dependable Republican state, has become a Democratic redoubt in no small part because of a battle over illegal immigration in the 1990s that is strongly echoed in today’s national debate.

A report  sanctioned by the Republican National Committee after Romney’s 2012 loss warned in strong terms that the party was doomed unless it became more welcoming to minority voters, women and young Americans.

“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the report declared. “If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

Little more than three years later, Trump has moved sharply in the opposite direction. 

The danger to the party is twofold. In California, the immigration fight spawned a huge legalization and voter registration effort that boosted minority voter numbers further, helping Democratic candidates and leaving Republicans with only rare successes since. The scarcity of successful GOP politicians in the state has given state Republicans no foothold to counter the image of the more conservative national party, tightening the party’s downward spiral.

Replicating that in multiple states will only narrow the Republican path in national political contests.

Madrid, the California-based consultant, predicted that Trump’s standing among Latinos nationwide in November would fall substantially behind Romney’s, into the range of 18-20%, in part because of the message he delivered Wednesday.

To offset that loss, Trump would have to draw in suburban white voters. Many of them, however, have recoiled from him this summer because of his policy views and temperament. Wednesday’s speech did nothing to change that.

For Republicans who are looking beyond Trump, immigration is central to the party’s coming reckoning.

“So many of my Republican colleagues say we have a brand problem. We have a brand problem because we have a policy problem,” said Reed Galen, a Republican consultant and veteran of George W. Bush’s campaigns and administration.

Every year, he noted, the percentage of minority voters rises and the percentage of white voters declines, a trend that, uninterrupted, will further marginalize Republicans.

“Either we decide that we are going to die or decide we are going to live,” he said of his party.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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