Trump’s immigration strategy is a casualty of covid-19

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One while returning to Washington from Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. May 30, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Donald Trump may have surrendered in the war on the coronavirus – he is “bored” by it, according to an aide to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott – but he has not relented in his war on immigration. Yet his indifference to the virus, a new poll suggests, may have undermined his assault on immigrants.

A memo from Hart Research Associates includes these key findings of a survey of 1,011 registered voters, conducted June 30 to July 5 for the Democratic-allied CAP Action Fund:

– 55% of voters disapprove of the job Trump is doing on immigration, up from 50% in an April poll by the same organization.

– Just 30% want a decrease in immigration, down from 38% in April.

– 61% say immigrants contribute a great deal or a fair amount to the nation’s efforts to combat covid-19, and 55% recognize contributions of undocumented immigrants to the fight, a 16-point rise since April.

The pandemic offered Trump a pretext for aggressive action, and he took it. The administration suspended entry by foreign nationals through the H-1B work-visa program and ordered the departure of foreign students if their colleges suspended in-classroom learning. After lawsuits and a coordinated campaign by universities and other groups, Trump abandoned the schools policy. He appears to be losing the larger battle on immigration as well.

The president and his advisers were betting that “concern about the spread of coronavirus would create a more fertile environment for their anti-immigrant policies, and at the beginning of the crisis that seemed plausible,” said pollster Geoff Garin in an email. But the pandemic, he said, has not led to “anti-immigrant hysteria.”

The poll also contains ammunition for advocates seeking to make households with undocumented immigrants eligible for federal relief in the bailout package currently being negotiated in Washington. Under the Cares Act signed into law in March, such households were restricted from access to aid. The poll shows that by 63% to 28%, voters support relief for U.S. citizens even if a member of their household is an undocumented immigrant. And 60% support relief to undocumented immigrants if they file taxes with a federal ID number.

There was reason to believe coronavirus might aid Trump’s war on immigrants. Indeed, there’s a certain evolutionary logic to Americans feeling uneasy about immigrants these days. With a pandemic raging across the country, aversion to outsiders is a primal urge. As one study noted, “participants under high disease-salience conditions expressed less positive attitudes toward foreign (but not familiar) immigrants and were more likely to endorse policies that would favor the immigration of familiar rather than foreign peoples.” In fact, a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll in April found 65% of Americans supported temporarily blocking all immigration to the U.S. during the coronavirus outbreak.

Yet as the disease spread, its anti-immigrant tail began to fade. The big change since April, Garin said, “is that people came to realize that covid-19 is spreading not because of people coming to America, but because of carelessness by people who are already here.”

If Trump had made a genuine effort to keep covid-19 from spreading, he might have had a better chance to cast the disease as a fellow traveler of immigrants. Instead, now it’s Americans who are shut out of countries that have done a better job containing the virus.

Other recent polls support the CAP Action Fund’s findings. Gallup crossed a public opinion Rubicon when a survey conducted May 28 to June 4 became its first-ever to register a higher percentage of Americans supporting increased immigration (34%) than decreased immigration (28%). Meanwhile, 77% in the poll said immigration is good for America. Likewise, a CBS News poll taken May 29 to June 2 found 55% of Americans said immigrants make American society better in the long run. Only 16% said they make it worse.

As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has written, Trump is losing his argument on immigration. Yet there seems little chance that he will change course. Restricting immigration is the policy dictated by his racial appeal, and his racial appeal is the bedrock of his politics. That foundation continues to crack.

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