Trump, Miller Think Road to 2022 Victory Is Immigration, Democrats See It as a Failed Playbook

Just eight minutes into his Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) speech on Sunday, Donald Trump went on his first extended riff, saying President Joe Biden has "triggered a massive flood of illegal immigration into our country, the likes of which we have never seen before."

The issue was famously one of the first things the former president brought up as a candidate in 2016, although he did not prioritize it in his 2020 race. But the placement of immigration at the top of his agenda to bash Biden comes just days after former senior adviser Stephen Miller, a dutiful architect of Trump's zero tolerance and family separation policies, told Republican members of Congress that immigration, more than any other issue, would be their ticket to bludgeoning Democrats during the midterms and wresting control of Congress.

Steve Cortes, a former Trump surrogate and adviser, told Newsweek the gulf between Biden and the last administration on immigration was a topic of conversation between himself and Trump during a recent trip to the ex-president's Florida home at Mar-a-Lago. He said it is critical for Republicans to push the issue during next year's midterm races.

"I 100 percent believe it is the most salient issue for the 2022 midterms," Cortes said. "The Biden initial moves regarding the border and immigration are radical and dangerous and already producing in weeks the beginning of a crisis at the border that I believe will intensify as the weather warms."

Biden has reversed many of Trump's immigration policies through executive orders, seeking to rebuild the asylum system, strengthen the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program Trump assailed, reunite families and revoke zero-tolerance orders. But COVID-19 protocols, in conjunction with allowing migrants to wait for their court dates in the U.S., has caused growing capacity problems in the early going.

Yet Democrats, when asked about this targeted and growing strategy to make immigration central to 2022 races in key districts around the country, said the approach isn't new. They cite 2018, when Trump and Miller ensured that migrant caravans coming to the border were characterized as a clear and present danger every day on Fox News. Even so, the strategy was unable to stop a blue wave from taking out Republicans.

"Miller's a one-trick pony and Republicans using immigration as a cudgel is the same thing they do every cycle," Representative Ruben Gallego, the chairman of the BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told Newsweek. He said that, in addition to immigration, he wouldn't be surprised to hear the GOP talk about defunding the police, which was a 2020 flashpoint, or transgender people, whom Trump criticized at CPAC.

"All they understand is how to scare and divide," Gallego said.

There's a reason part of the Biden campaign's closing argument in October ads was on ending family separations at the border, Democrats said. They argued that it was important to persuadable voters, and that immigration is not as "scary" as Republicans want to make it out to be.

And Gallego also warned that anti-immigrant rhetoric may not be the best decision for Republicans in growing majority-Latino districts across the country. He added that he would "love to hear that type of rhetoric" down in South Florida and in California races where Democrats barely lost.

Carlos Odio, an Obama alumnus and co-founder of Democratic research organization EquisLabs, said Republicans have to perform a balancing act on immigration. He noted that Trump toned it down specifically because he saw a path forward with Latinos in 2020 and ended up improving on his 2016 election performance.

"Does immigration rile up a certain type of Trump voter? Yes," Odio said. "Will they find a way to rile up that voter regardless? Also, yes."

But Democrats in border communities where Trump improved with Latinos have shown skittishness on immigration early in Biden's term. Representative Vicente Gonzalez, who represents a majority-Latino Texas district along the border, won in 2020 by only 3 points, despite winning his 2018 race by more than 20 points.

Gonzalez told CNN that processing and releasing migrants seeking asylum will send a message to Central Americans that tens of thousands of people can show up to the border, which will be "catastrophic for our party, for our country, for my region, for my district, in the middle of a pandemic."

Giancarlo Sopo, who ran Spanish-language rapid response for the Trump campaign last year, added, "The problem for [Democrats], as we saw in 2020, is that Hispanics in border counties are moderate on immigration and the issue is not a top priority for Florida Latinos."

But Democrats said that nervousness within their party on immigration is nothing new and that there is plenty of time for Americans to see that recovery from the pandemic is not threatened because of immigrants but is instead a priority with a coronavirus relief package around the corner. That bill has already passed the House, and money will be on the way to eligible recipients' bank accounts after the measure clears the Senate and is signed by Biden.

"There's going to be a recovery bill passed, it's not going to be a trade-off with immigrants," said former Biden campaign pollster Matt Barreto. "Everyone will be included in the recovery plan, which is the bill we needed nine months ago, and Biden and Democrats are finally going to deliver. It defies logic that some sort of push for immigration reform pits immigrants against American citizens."

Still, the Trump wing of the Republican Party clearly hopes that immigration is an issue, not just in 2022, but beyond.

Cortes wouldn't say if Trump broached the topic of running again in 2024, as he did in his CPAC speech, but predicted that immigration will be a priority once again.

"No matter who the nominee is in 2024—and I hope it's Donald Trump—highlighting immigration now is a key critical differentiating issue between Biden and the America First agenda for a Republican Congress in 2022, and an America First president in 2024, whether Trump or someone else," he said.

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Former President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 28 in Orlando, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty