Donald Trump had been sounding the same populist notes since he first flirted with running for president, all the way back in 1987: The United States is weak and stupid, is being exploited by wily foreign competitors, and needs to negotiate better trade deals to raise wages and bring back good jobs. But in 2013, he added a new verse to the hymnal. Trump began talking about the menace of illegal immigration.
He added this issue to his populist arsenal in large part because Steve Bannon — then the head of the right-wing Breitbart News, now Trump’s chief White House strategist — brought it to his attention. It quickly became a core part of Trump’s message because he could see that it resonated with the Republican base. At the time, leaders of both parties were committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform (derided as “amnesty” by its opponents). Trump went in the other direction, promising a crackdown.
He didn’t take polls or convene focus groups to arrive at this position — not exactly. What he did instead was turn to Twitter, where he could easily gauge his followers’ interests. “That was our focus group,” Sam Nunberg, a Trump aide, told me in an interview for my book on Trump and Bannon. “Every time Trump tweeted against ‘amnesty’ in 2013, 2014, he would get hundreds and hundreds of retweets.”
Trump’s heretical position on immigration didn’t win him many friends among Republican leaders. But he made a deep connection with Republican voters. More than any other issue, Trump’s hard-line views on immigration and his vow to build “The Wall” carried him to the White House.
Two hundred days into his administration, Trump doesn’t have much in the way of tangible accomplishments to brag about. He didn’t, as he promised during the campaign, repeal and replace Obamacare. His goal of rewriting the US tax code by the end of August also isn’t going to pan out. At a recent West Virginia rally, Trump claimed, falsely, that his administration was bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States “by the hundreds of thousands” — the hottest jobs sector is actually restaurant and bar work (which pays much worse). By standard metrics, it’s easy to chalk up Trump’s presidency as a failure.
But on the issue that transformed his political persona and drove his presidential campaign — immigration — Trump has delivered more to his supporters than he’s often given credit for.
His administration has stepped up arrests of undocumented immigrants. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say arrests are up nearly 40 percent this year over the same period in 2016. Trump also signed a series of executive actions: One ends the “catch and release” policy whereby immigrants are released from detention while they await a hearing with an immigration judge; another halts federal funding to “sanctuary” cities and states that don’t report undocumented immigrants (a California judge has issued a nationwide injunction blocking the action). Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has reassigned immigration judges to border states to hasten deportations.
One reason Trump has been able to change immigration policy is that most of what he wants to do doesn’t require Congress to pass new laws. “People don’t appreciate the extent to which we have set in motion a substantial and long-overdue change to US laws and authorities,” Stephen Miller, a senior White House official, told me earlier this year. He cited as an example a program known as 287(g), a section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which allows local law enforcement to assist in the enforcement of immigration laws.
Trump hasn’t gotten everything he wants on immigration, not by a long stretch. Although the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to begin construction of his border wall, building it to completion will require congressional appropriations that aren’t likely to be easily forthcoming.
Even so, the president’s hostility to illegal immigration appears to have reduced the number of people trying to enter the country illegally. In March, the number of immigrants caught attempting to cross the US-Mexico border fell to a 17-year low. And Trump is also pushing to reduce legal immigration by endorsing a bill to cut immigration levels in half.
So far, Trump’s presidency has been chiefly defined by his failures, which have hurt his standing in the polls. But his support among Republicans, although it has weakened somewhat, remains strong. Those most fiercely loyal to Trump are the voters who care most deeply about issues like immigration. Trump’s ability to deliver for them has kept them in the fold and propped up his presidency — at least, for now.
Joshua Green is author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency” and a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.