He's got a plan.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Trump Is GOP Policy Nightmare

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Donald Trump has an immigration policy. It's based on dubious assertions and would be fabulously expensive, but as a statement of goals it's largely coherent. And it may mark a very, very dangerous turning point in the Republican presidential primary.

There are two main facets of illegal immigration: border security, encompassing both the nation's geographic border and its ports and airports, and the fate of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. All Republican candidates support varying degrees of increased border enforcement, repeating "secure the border" as a charm to ward off the evil eye of the right wing.

The party is otherwise fractured. Legal immigration is a sticky point, pitting Republican donors against the party's sizable wing of immigration restrictionists. And the question of what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., most of whom have been here for a decade or more, is even stickier. Polls show that a majority of Americans support some kind of path to legalization. But Republicans are more opposed -- and opponents are particularly vocal.

Among the top presidential contenders, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich seem squarely in the legalization camp. But many of their competitors oppose such "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants. They have plenty of support. Earlier this year, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to rescind President Barack Obama's executive actions easing deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants.

If a path to legalization or citizenship is foreclosed, two options remain: continuing the status quo, leaving 11 million people residing illegally in the U.S. Or deporting them. Even the most virulently restrictionist Republicans have avoided explicitly calling for the latter. Instead, they typically suggest that the fate of the 11 million is an issue to be addressed only once "a secure border" is in place. "A secure border" being largely a matter of conjecture, there is no way to know how or when the second phase -- dealing with the 11 million -- might ever be attempted, let alone resolved. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio each have offered muddy views on the issue.

The dodge works so long as Republicans are allowed to remain vague. But Trump just broke the party compact: He got specific.

Trump's plan is an assault on legal and illegal immigration across multiple fronts. He wants to shut off employment to illegal immigrants by expanding the e-verify system, which checks the legal status of job applicants (and job holders), nationwide. He wants to "impound" remittance payments from illegal wages, undermining a key rationale of illegal employment. He calls for an end to birthright citizenship, but also a limit on issuing new green cards and new restrictions on hiring high-skills immigrants. He wants to triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents working to root out undocumented immigrants.

If your goal is to drive millions of undocumented immigrants south across the border, Trump's plan looks like a winner. In effect, Trump would significantly increase deportations while enacting enforcement policies intended to bring about Mitt Romney's vision of mass "self-deportation." It's an easy set of concepts for voters to grasp and for debate moderators to probe. Which of the other candidates will sign on? Which side are they on: mass deportation or mass law-breaking? Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said today that Trump's blueprint is "very similar" to his own plan.

Amusingly, Bush and Kasich may be the chief beneficiaries of Trump's astringent effect. They've already defined the soft side of the party on immigration. But now the hardliners must come clean: Do they ratify what establishmentarian Bush has been saying all along? Endorse Trump's new standard? A hypocrite's dodge threatens to become a Hobson's choice.

Trump has been leading the Republican pack in polls, with about a quarter of the vote. Now, with his first real policy proposal, he has almost certainly solidified his hold on the party's most virulently anti-immigrant voters. Only nine percent of Republicans in a July CNN/ORC poll said illegal immigration would be their top issue in voting for a president. But drawing hard, punitive lines against people on the margins never seems to lose its appeal to the Republican base.  

It will be difficult for an eventual Republican nominee to navigate Trump's challenge without alienating either the anti-immigrant cohort that he is energizing or mainstream voters. And it could get worse. What if Trump gets specific on other policies? Taxes. Health care. Retirement security. Climate change. Bombing Iran.

My Bloomberg View colleague Jonathan Bernstein calls Republicans a "post-policy" party for their reliable reluctance to fashion policies that are structurally sound and politically viable. The key is maintaining a perpetual fog. (Repeal and replace Obamacare! With something. Pass Paul Ryan's budget! As long as it doesn't become law.) 

In the greatest irony, Trump has the capacity to exploit the void, forcing vaguer Republican candidates to respond to his specific proposals. He is making immigration a nightmare for Republicans. Other bad dreams could follow.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net