The political peril of using immigrants as props

Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity this week, former President Donald Trump revived one of his earliest anti-immigration lines: the people approaching the border were criminals.

“Venezuela is dumping its prison inmates into the United States and going straight across the border like nothing,” he claimed, alluding to a report published by Breitbart. “We are poisoning our country and it is very difficult to come back from it.”

The Breitbart report is vague and refers to a briefing allegedly offered to border guards. But Trump wasn’t bothered by the lack of specificity: He provided an easy linchpin to describe migrant arrivals as a national “poison.”

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In the last year or two, there has been a surge in arrests of people outside of Mexico and Central America at the border, including a surge in the number of Venezuelan migrants. The reason for this is simple: turmoil and political repression in Venezuela — unrest that Trump and his party have often used as a foil, blaming socialism — are driving people to seek opportunity in the United States. But the rhetoric of a dangerous “open border” was more appealing to Trump right now than ranting at Venezuela’s leadership. So the problem became sneaky criminals, an argument similar to his “they bring crime” line about immigrants from his 2015 campaign launch.

Venezuelan immigrants have been in the news recently thanks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) using people from that country in his ploy to send immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis’ efforts were clearly aimed at ingratiating him with Republican voters; His attempts to explain what happened and why do not stand up to scrutiny. Trump, of course, had the same intention: continue to play on his base’s fear of immigration.

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But both Trump’s rhetoric and DeSantis’ gimmick have obvious downside risk. Its targets are Hispanic immigrants, members of a demographic group Republicans are feverishly appealing to. For DeSantis in particular, who is seeking re-election in a state home to a large percentage of Hispanic immigrants, using members of this group as political props two months before his re-election bid is even odder.

There is a clear correlation between the density of a county’s foreign-born population and its 2020 presidential election. The tenth of the counties with the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents supported Trump by an average margin of 74 points. Tenth with the highest percentage assisted Joe Biden with an average of 35 points.

However, this correlates with population density; The tenth most immigrant district has 35 times as many people as the bottom tenth. You can see that below. Counties with higher immigration numbers (bottom of chart) are more democratic (farther left)—and often more populous (larger counties). In other words: cities.

Notice that Miami-Dade County is highlighted. It has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents. In fact, it is home to one of the largest populations of Venezuelan immigrants in the United States. No wonder the mayor of Miami-Dade County, a Democrat, slammed DeSantis.

Venezuelan interest groups echoed the criticism.

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Note, however, how close Miami-Dade is to this centerline despite having such a large immigrant population. In 2020, Biden won by a narrow margin, far less than was widely expected. The election results in heavy Spanish The places were divided less according to parties. Below you can see how many places with higher Hispanic populations shared their vote or supported Trump.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the analysis suffers from the ecological fallacy: this is an assessment of voting in heavily Hispanic locales, not Hispanic voters. The second is that many locations with heavily Hispanic populations have large populations of noncitizen Hispanics who cannot vote.

However, in places like Florida, the bulk of the foreign-born population is also Hispanic. Compare the prevalence of orange in that state (large foreign-born population, heavily Hispanic) to the violet in the Midwest (large foreign-born population, low Hispanic density) or the yellow in northeastern Arizona (high Hispanic density, low Foreigner). born).

Trump and DeSantis may be mollified somewhat by the fact that, despite Trump’s 2015 rhetoric, Miami-Dade County ended up voting more favorably for the incumbent president in 2020 than expected. To some extent, this can be attributed to the district’s large Cuban population, which has been targeted by Trump’s anti-socialist stance. (We don’t want the United States to be like Venezuela!) But there was also a national shift to the right among Hispanic voters from 2016-20.

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An analysis by Equis Labs published last year offered an explanation: The election wasn’t really focused on immigration. The candidates were more focused on the pandemic, crime and the economy, meaning Hispanic voters would be more likely to choose between candidates on these issues than on immigration, where Trump fares worse.

Last week, the New York Times published a new poll conducted by Siena College that focused on the views of Hispanic voters. Economically, Hispanics are divided between Democrats and Republicans. When it comes to immigration, however, Democrats retain a major advantage. Hispanics agree with Democrats’ handling of illegal immigration by a nine-point margin and legal Immigration by 26 points. The border there becomes blurred; DeSantis has claimed that the migrants shipped to Martha’s Vineyard were in the country illegally, but it appears many sought asylum and were legally allowed to stay in the country.

The point, however, is that by emphasizing immigration just before the election, DeSantis and Trump may mobilize their constituents to run for elections. But they also raise the profile of immigration, an issue on which Hispanic voters are more likely to side with the political opposition.

Trump, it seems safe to say, isn’t really worried about that. DeSantis, who won the 2018 election remarkably close, might be a little more cautious. Sure, he’ll get more airtime on Fox News. But at the risk of undermining the likelihood of re-election — and marching to the 2024 primary as a triumphant political conqueror.

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