Immigration-Votes Haunt 2016’s Insider Candidates – But Not Trump

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate, October 28, 2015 at the Coors Event Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/ ROBYN BECK
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump has run well on the immigration issue partly because most of his rivals played some role in creating the crisis. The immigration mess has been brewing for a long time, and most established politicians have taken a turn at stirring the pot.

We had a vivid illustration of this problem when Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign began making a case last week that Senator Ted Cruz, for all of his tough talk on immigration, hasn’t voted all that differently from Rubio. Cruz hit back by saying his defeated amendments to Rubio’s “Gang of Eight” immigration bill were political gambits intended to expose the hypocrisy of the bill’s supporters. One of his amendments, for example, forced the Gang of Eight supporters to vote against a ban on amnestied illegals collecting welfare benefits, even though they insisted aliens are not flooding the U.S. in search of welfare benefits.

The fight between Rubio and Cruz supporters over these votes became quite intense, illustrating both the advantages and complications of running for President with a legislative history.  

It’s common practice in Congress for votes to be arranged so that members can claim they voted against something, even if their nominal resistance was entirely ineffective. The same representative may vote “Yes” in committee, but then “No” on the floor. Often legislators claim to support principles that run contrary to their voting records, especially when deals are struck to move bipartisan bills.  

Once in a great while, they even admit to changing their minds after reflecting on the unintended consequences of legislation. Such is the case with Rubio and the Gang of Eight bill – but voters who look back at his spirited defense of those proposals in 2013 have a hard time believing he’s completely changed his mind about them.  

It’s not easy to repudiate something which was passionate advocated so recently.  

The task is hardest of all with immigration, where grassroots conservative voters understand the immense pressure brought to bear by the Beltway open-borders caucus. There might not be any issue where it’s more difficult for a politician to convince voters his heart has sincerely and durably changed.

Immigration isn’t just a massive issue because the American people generally oppose open-borders measures the Beltway elite strongly favors. It’s because the grassroots feel they have no representation at all on this issue. Their government is indisputably, and almost universally, more interested in the welfare of foreign nationals than of American citizens.

That sounds harsh, but there’s really no doubt about it. Inside the D.C. bubble, hardly anyone thinks about immigration as an “America First” issue. Nothing about our immigration policy is written from the perspective of a sovereign nation acting jealously to protect the interests of its legal citizens. The issue is almost universally framed as what we “must do” on behalf of non-citizens, ranging from “refugees” – first from South America, and now from Syria – to those who illegally cross the border in search of a better life.  

The notion of aggressive immigration-enforcement is dismissed out of hand as unspeakably cruel to the violators – we simply can’t put them through the trauma of deportation, no matter how many U.S. laws they’ve broken. Sometimes demands for aggressive enforcement are even slapped down on the basis of mere optics, because it would look bad for squads of immigration police to conduct widespread raids and load illegals into mass transportation for the journey home.

Frankly, our government isn’t even aggressive about deporting hard-core felons with violent offenses, as the horror stories from “sanctuary cities” illustrate. We’re hearing now that public apprehension about the massive wave of “Syrian refugees” is based in nothing but unreasoning paranoia and xenophobia, even though our own government agencies admit that maintaining security during such a large and rapid resettlement program is impossible.

The character of any political debate is changed enormously by where it begins. If the first principle of immigration was to safeguard the interests of the American people – not to be confused with the interests of special-interest lobbies with an insatiable appetite for cheap labor and Big Government votes – it would look very different from the current conversation, which begins from the assumption that the best interests of non-citizens come first.

In all honesty, the Beltway elite doesn’t think the interests of the American people are valid at all – they quite literally believe the people have nothing respectable to say on the subject. A great deal of our immigration process is carried out in secret, like those busloads of “unaccompanied alien children” that drew protesting crowds when the public finally learned about them. A government that cared about the opinions of its citizens wouldn’t be hiding so much from them.

The complex legislative history of immigration is one of the big reasons why Donald Trump has been able to seize the stage, and demonstrably shift the entire conversation in his direction. He doesn’t have a legislative history to argue about. He’s made rhetorical statements in the past that were different from what he says about immigration today, but there’s a serious difference between talking and voting, as the argument between Rubio and Cruz demonstrates. Accusations that a candidate talks one way, but votes another, resonate with voters inclined to think politicians are generally dishonest.  

They resonate even more strongly with voters who feel routinely betrayed by their elected representatives, as grassroots conservatives do. This feeling is far more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats, particularly after a historic midterm election victory that didn’t seem to make much difference in Washington. It’s most acute on the matter of immigration, where everything said to placate the skeptical turns out to be a lie, and decades of deliberate negligence built up an illegal alien problem so huge that we’re told it can only be “solved” by waving a magic wand and declaring them all legal now.  

Even politicians who have decent records at grappling with border security often vote to support the “high-end” immigration of the massively abused H-1B visa program. Those who are tough on the border often strive to demonstrate that they’re not “anti-immigrant” by voting in favor of large-scale high-skill immigration, which their Big Business donors coincidentally desire, so they can replace expensive American workers with cheaper imported labor.

Immigration is the perfect issue for “outsider” candidates to seize… because most of the “insiders” have played some role in making the situation worse, or have made concessions to an elite consensus that differs wildly from the demands of the American people.