Trump’s Ominous Message to Hispanic Americans: Watch Your Back

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Trump won't commit the resources to deport all of the undocumented, but he wants them to fear his wrath nonetheless.Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

To get a proper grip on where Donald Trump has taken the Republican Party after his latest spasm of speechifying and posturing on immigration, it’s helpful to go back to the RNC’s famous 2013 “autopsy report” explaining how the GOP could avoid the fate of Mitt Romney. Romney, you may recall, very accurately described his immigration policy as “self-deportation”: Through malign neglect (including random documentation checks by local law enforcement), make life as unpleasant as possible for the undocumented and many of them will go home and take with them the message that the Land of Opportunity was closing its doors.

Here’s how the “autopsy report” described the political consequences of that attitude:

“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”

That did seem to be the case, as Romney lost the Hispanic vote — the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate — in 2012 (according to exit polls) by an astonishing 71-27 margin.

And so the logical thing to do, concluded the report, was to go back to the support for comprehensive immigration reform that was originally devised by Karl Rove as one of the keys to an enduring Republican majority — before “the base” rejected efforts by its last two pre-Romney presidential nominees (George W. Bush and John McCain) to enact it into law.

As we all know, “the base” stopped that from happening once again, and the 2016 nominee turned out to be someone who had made hostility to immigration reform — and a variety of other white ethno-nationalist themes — signature motifs of an unprecedented challenge to Establishment Republicanism.

Now that Trump has (apparently, at least; one can never rule out countless additional reformulations and “pivots” with the wiggy dude) issued his most definitive statement ever on immigration policy, it seems he’s taken Romney’s “self-deportation” position and tried to add some teeth and a snarl.

You might not realize this right away, given his rhetoric, but Trump did not actually embrace a policy of immediate deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants, apparently realizing that would involve about a gazillion dollars and the establishment of a fascist police state. His proposal to prioritize the deportation of people convicted of crimes is actually the same as the Obama administration’s.

But if he’s serious about trying to immediately deport the roughly 4 million people who have overstayed visas, that’s a pretty big departure from current practice and would require a half-gazillion dollars and moderately vicious police-state enforcement strategies. That could be just a feint, though, designed (along with a new policy of deporting any undocumented immigrant arrested — not convicted, but arrested — for a crime) to put the word out that there’s a new sheriff in town who is determined to harass and immiserate the undocumented without the insane cost and bad impressions associated with setting up star chambers and massive relocation camps and then bringing out the cattle cars headed south.

Politically, Trump is making the opposite bet posed by the “autopsy report” — not just in the sense of moving violently and permanently away from comprehensive immigration reform, but in gambling that, along with the Wall, the most hateful attitude possible toward the 11 million will satisfy “the base” without the fateful step of going all the way to immediate mass deportations, the logical end of his rhetoric.

From a strict policy point of view, Trump’s position is not much different from Romney’s — and in key respects, even from Obama’s. But as the authors of the “autopsy report” would immediately recognize with horror, it’s intended to send a message to Hispanics and other immigrant populations. “The base” is tired of being told to “press 1 for English” in their own country. And the undocumented best understand they are living on borrowed time.