Fear of Immigrants Has Broken the Republican Party

“It is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners.” So said Ronald Reagan in 1979 at the New York Hilton when he announced his second, ultimately successful, presidential campaign.

Thirty-six years later and three blocks away at Trump Tower, Donald Trump announced his second, ultimately successful, presidential campaign (remember, he briefly ran for the Reform Party nomination in 2000) with a different attitude toward our neighbors: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

A new Republican Party began that day. But Trump didn’t just shift the GOP’s posture on this one issue. He replaced the party’s philosophical foundation, challenging its bedrock economic libertarianism and foreign policy hawkishness, creating divisions on trade, Social Security, Russia, and North Korea. Instead, the lone principle animating and unifying the Republican Party would now be fear of immigrants.

For months, immigration has appeared to be a political problem for Democrats, not Republicans. With an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers straining the resources of several major municipalities and causing an unruly scrum on the U.S.-Mexican border, the party most antagonistic towards immigrants appears poised to benefit.

But in the past several days, we can see how the GOP’s obsession with immigration has damaged its ability to function. To avoid grappling with Ukraine (an issue that divides the party), congressional Republicans insisted any aid package to help Ukraine secure its borders must be paired with new policies to secure ours.

When President Joe Biden called that bluff and moved dramatically in their direction behind a bipartisan package of restrictive measures, Republicans moved the goalposts. House Speaker Mike Johnson declared the bill wouldn’t receive a vote, and besides, he asserted, the president doesn’t need new powers to shut down the border. Shrinking from intraparty and interchamber combat, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell abandoned his support and cleared the way for a filibuster.

The House then moved to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the specious grounds his border management qualifies as a high crime and merits the first ouster of a cabinet secretary in more than 150 years. The first House vote failed in a tie, largely because three Republicans couldn’t stomach how their colleagues were cheapening the grave power of impeachment. But a second vote could succeed once Representative Steve Scalise, absent on Tuesday, returns next week following medical treatment. Regardless, the impeachment spectacle has nothing to do with fixing problems. The majority-Democratic Senate won’t convict Mayorkas, and no policies will be changed.

Meanwhile, aid to Ukraine—as well as Israel and Taiwan—is in limbo. With the GOP divided between Reaganite internationalists and Trumpist “America First” quasi-isolationists, no one knows if a foreign aid package can pass without a link to any domestic border reforms.

Trump’s obsession with immigration didn’t only derail the legislative process in the Biden administration but also his own administration. Recall that in 2018, Trump became the first president in American history to deliberately instigate a government shutdown, refusing to sign legislation to fund the government if it didn’t include nearly $6 billion in funds for a border wall. After 35 days, Trump surrendered, receiving nothing. Of course, his campaign promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it was a chimera.

(Trump justified the climbdown by announcing a national emergency and diverting Pentagon funds into border wall construction. In October 2020, a federal appellate court ruled the diversion illegal, then before the Supreme Court could weigh in, the Biden administration rendered the case moot by ending the national emergency.)

Earlier in 2018, Trump missed an opportunity for a bipartisan deal on border wall funding. Then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats would give him $25 billion for the wall if he would agree to keep Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), allowing the children of undocumented immigrants already in America to attend college, to work, and to have a pathway to citizenship.

At the time, Trump’s rejection of the offer was confounding. Why walk away from a deal that would have fulfilled his signature campaign pledge? That question is easier to answer once you grasp that Trump, and now his entire party sculpted in his image, is not interested in problem-solving. If the problems with the immigration system were solved, then Trump would be without his best tool to maintain his grip on the party.

Typically, candidates and parties adapt to changing circumstances. If a problem is solved or a crisis abated, you move on to the next one. But nothing revs up MAGA loyalists like immigration. As Trump said back in 2016 to The New York Times editorial board, “If [a rally] gets a little boring, if I see people … thinking about leaving … I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”

Ever since Lyndon Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party has not been shy about exploiting racial fears for political purposes, stoking fears about affirmative action, busing, and progressive approaches to crime. But the GOP’s turn against immigration is a more recent phenomenon. For decades, the Republican leaders sought bipartisan compromises on immigration that included legalizing the undocumented and wider pathways to enter the U.S. legally.

During the 1980 campaign, Reagan said, “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit.” He followed through on that vision as president, signing the 1986 immigration reform bill that provided amnesty to the undocumented.

Reagan bookended his presidency in January 1989 with a final ode to immigrants. He quoted from a letter he received which read, “You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.” He counseled and cautioned, “Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, built on that legacy, eschewing blood-and-soil nationalism for a vision of America as an idea, not an ethnicity. He signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased available visas, particularly work visas. He praised the legislation for recognizing “the fundamental importance and historic contributions of immigrants to our country” and “blending … our tradition of family reunification with increased immigration of skilled individuals to meet our economic needs.”

One Republican not on board with the Reagan-Bush vision was, of course, Pat Buchanan, who mounted a primary challenge to Bush in 1992. By this point, annual border apprehensions were back on the rise after a brief dip following the passage of the 1986 law, and the accumulative number of undocumented immigrants would keep rising through the 1990s. He promoted a “Buchanan Fence” and a trench across the Mexican border and proposed dotting the border with military bases. He did not hesitate to root his anti-immigrant positions in racism. Weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Buchanan said on national television, “I think God made all people good, but if we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?”

Buchanan never got close to becoming president, but in New Hampshire, he gave Bush a scare and opened up a rift in the GOP. Four years later, squaring off against establishment Republican Bob Dole, he won a narrow victory in New Hampshire and claimed three other states. In between the two presidential elections, California voters passed a ballot initiative denying social services to the undocumented, though it was soon ruled unconstitutional. Sensing a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and an opportunity to flip California, Dole tried to weaponize the immigration issue late in the general election campaign, accusing Clinton of failing to “guard this nation’s borders” in deference to “militant special interests.” The attack line flopped.

By 2000, Buchanan left the Republican Party for the Reform Party. He was briefly challenged for the nomination by Trump, who called him a “Hitler lover” and an “anti-Semite” who “doesn’t like the blacks” and “the gays.”

Yet Buchanan and Trump were on the same page about immigration, though Trump was softer-edged than he is today. Trump published The America We Deserve in January 2000, which argued, “We can’t allow ourselves to welcome outsiders to our shores out of kindness. If people enter this country by disregarding our laws, can we be confident that they will suddenly become law-abiding citizens once they arrive?” He noted that legal immigrants come with “the best of intentions,” yet “let’s be extremely careful not to admit more people than we can absorb. It comes down to this: We must take care of our own people first.”

The Republican Party was still led by someone with a welcoming attitude toward immigrants: George W. Bush. But unlike his father, he couldn’t get a major immigration bill through Congress. As Bush pushed for a bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs turned what had been a staid hour of business news into an anti-immigrant crusade. A bipartisan bill was brought to the Senate, but with the right-wing riled up, most Senate Republicans joined a splinter faction of Democrats and filibustered it dead.

John McCain was a Senate Republican who helped craft the package and, in 2008, became the Republican presidential nominee. But as animus towards immigrants grew among the Republican base, McCain drifted with the tide. Running for re-election in 2010, he starred in a campaign ad stoking fear of immigrants and pledging to “complete the danged fence.” In 2012, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, proposed to make it so hard for the undocumented to find work they would “self-deport.”

But the hardening nativist sentiment on the right wasn’t broadly shared at this point, perhaps because under Barack Obama, border crossings were down, deportations were up, and the total number of undocumented people shrank.

When Romney lost to Obama, conservatives such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity briefly considered turning leftward on immigration out of concern they could never win a sufficient share of the Latino vote otherwise. Obama had hoped he had built enough political capital, partly by taking immigration law enforcement seriously, to notch a grand bargain. But anti-immigrant fervor on the right returned with a vengeance once a bipartisan immigration bill cleared the Senate, and the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, never let the bill get a vote.

Three years later, Donald Trump was elected president, and the transformation of the GOP on immigration was complete. But the result was a party with a broken brain, increasingly disinterested in the basics of governing and the details of policy-making.

Trump and the Republicans may be able to seize temporary political advantages during surges of migration, using stunts such as shipping migrants to Democratic-run cities to keep public attention on the issue. But they can’t leverage that attention into solutions. Without a border crisis—real or imagined—with which to fearmonger, the current Republican Party can’t hold together.

The only way a border security deal was going to happen was for a faction of Republicans, uninterested in bowing to Trump on Ukraine, to put long-term policy ahead of short-term politics. So long as Trump is calling the shots, we will keep talking about the border, but we will never fix it.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Leave a Comment