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.
The political peril of using immigrants as props
The Breitbart report is vague, referring to a briefing purportedly offered to Border Patrol agents. But Trump was unbothered by the lack of specificity: It offered a simple pivot to describing the arrival of migrants as a national “poison.”
Over the past year or two, there has been an increase in the number of apprehensions made at the border of people from outside Mexico and Central America, including a rise in the number of Venezuelan migrants. There’s a simple reason for this: Turmoil and political repression in Venezuela — unrest that Trump and his party have often used as a foil by blaming it on socialism — is driving people to seek opportunity in the United States. But the rhetoric of a dangerous “open border” was more appealing to Trump in the moment than railing against Venezuela’s leadership. So the problem became sneaky criminals, an argument akin to his “they’re bringing 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 for his stunt of sending immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis’s effort was clearly intended to ingratiate him with Republican voters; his attempts to rationalize what happened and why don’t hold up well to scrutiny. Trump, of course, had the same intent: continue to play to his base’s anxiety about immigration.
But both Trump’s rhetoric and DeSantis’s gimmick have an obvious downside risk. Those being targeted are Hispanic immigrants, members of a demographic group to whom Republicans are feverishly trying to appeal. For DeSantis in particular, seeking reelection in a state that’s home to a large percentage of Hispanic immigrants, using members of that group as political props two months before his reelection bid is even more curious.
There is a clear correlation between the density of the foreign-born population in a county and its 2020 presidential vote. The tenth of counties with the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents backed Trump by an average 74-point margin. The tenth with the highest percentage backed Joe Biden by an average of 35 points.
But this correlates with population density; the tenth of counties with the highest number of immigrants are home to 35 times more people than the lowest tenth. You can see that below. More heavily immigrant counties (lower on the graph) are more Democratic (further to the left) — and often more populous (larger circles). In other words: cities.
Notice that Miami-Dade County is highlighted. It has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents. It is home, in fact, to one of the largest populations of Venezuelan immigrants in the United States. No wonder the mayor of Miami-Dade County, a Democrat, blasted DeSantis.
In Miami we know all too well why Venezuelans come to our nation fleeing oppression and seeking freedom. Today, at the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, we should be celebrating the many contributions of immigrants who built our community–not using them to score political points. https://t.co/asLhng31FA
— Daniella Levine Cava (@MayorDaniella) September 15, 2022
Venezuelan advocacy groups joined in the criticism.
But, despite having such a large immigrant population, notice how close to that centerline Miami-Dade sits. In 2020, Biden won only narrowly, far less robustly than was broadly expected. The election results in more heavy Hispanic places were less divided by party. Below, you can see how many places with higher Hispanic populations were divided in their vote or backed Trump.
There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the analysis suffers from the ecological fallacy: This is an assessment of the vote in heavily Hispanic places, not Hispanic voters. The second is that many places with heavily Hispanic populations have large populations of noncitizen Hispanics who cannot vote.
In places like Florida, though, most of the foreign-born population is also Hispanic. Compare the prevalence of orange in that state (high foreign-born population, heavily Hispanic) with the purple in the Midwest (lots of foreign-born residents, low Hispanic density) or the yellow in northeastern Arizona (high Hispanic density, low foreign-born).
Trump and DeSantis may be mollified somewhat by the fact that, despite Trump’s 2015 rhetoric, Miami-Dade County did end up voting more favorably for the incumbent president in 2020 than expected. To some extent, this can be attributed to the county’s large Cuban population, targeted by Trump’s anti-socialism pitch. (We don’t want the United States to turn out like Venezuela!) But there was also a national shift to the right among Hispanic voters from 2016 to 2020.
Analysis from Equis Labs published last year offered an explanation for that: The election wasn’t really focused on immigration. Candidates were more focused on the pandemic, crime and the economy, meaning that Hispanic voters were more likely to choose between the candidates on those issues than on immigration where Trump fared worse.
Last week, the New York Times published new polling conducted by Siena College focused on the views of Hispanic voters. On the economy, Hispanics are split between Democrats and Republicans. On immigration, though, Democrats retain a big advantage. Hispanics agree with Democrats’ handling of illegal immigration by a nine-point margin and legal immigration by 26 points. The boundary there gets blurry; DeSantis has claimed that the migrants shipped to Martha’s Vineyard were in the country illegally, but it appears many were seeking asylum and legally allowed to remain in the country.
The point, though, is that by highlighting immigration right before the election, DeSantis and Trump might be mobilizing their voters to turn out to vote. But they are also increasing the salience of immigration, a question 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 election in 2018 by a remarkably narrow margin, might be a bit more cautious. Sure, he’ll get more airtime on Fox News. But at the risk of eroding the likelihood of a blowout reelection — and marching toward the 2024 primaries as a triumphant political conqueror.