This past weekend, Republican presidential candidate and current front-runner Donald Trump unveiled his first position paper. He chose immigration, an issue that arguably helped vault him to the top of the Republican field. In his statement, Trump outlined various policy changes, including denying birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants and building a border wall with Mexico, financed by impounding migrant remittances and imposing various fees on visitors from Mexico. Trump went even further in his remarks in a recorded interview for “Meet the Press,” saying that all undocumented immigrants would “have to go,” including entire families composed of undocumented parents and U.S.-citizen children.
Within two days, several analyses and critical commentary have emerged. Some have noted that Trump’s views are minority positions even among Republican voters. Others point out that there would be a $100-$200 billion federal price tag on mass deportations, and that even worse economic ramifications would befall various industries and state economies that rely heavily on immigrant labor.
More generally, as my coauthor Deep Gulasekaram and I show in our new book “The New Immigration Federalism,” states have become much more robustly engaged on immigration regulation, a process that started in the 1970s and has accelerated in the past decade. Federal courts have limited the scope of some of these efforts. Most notably, in 2012, the Supreme Court’s United States v. Arizona decision severely restricted how much states could independently get involved in immigration enforcement. Nevertheless, states are much more central players on immigration regulation now than, say, during the 1930s. Back then, the federal government enlisted the help of states and counties to forcibly repatriate upwards of 1 million Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children to Mexico.
Some of today’s autonomy includes the ability of states to revoke the licenses of businesses that fail to comply with state laws on verifying immigrant work authorization. Much more common, however, are states offering various benefits to their residents, regardless of immigration status, including in-state tuition, state financial aid and professional licenses.
As Congress continues to stall on immigration reform, state regulations continue to grow and take root, making it more difficult for Congress to dislodge or uproot those policies. Indeed, even a seemingly straightforward proposal in Trump’s immigration plan, a national system of e-Verify, could not pass the Republican-controlled House in 2011. Then, opposition stemmed not only from House Democrats but also from immigration conservatives who wanted to preserve state power on immigration. Kris Kobach, author and consultant on many state restrictive laws, noted at the time that immigration conservatives would be better served by state laws on employee verification than by a national e-Verify law that could be watered down in future years. We can expect similar resistance from Senate Democrats to any federal attempts to wipe out state laws that benefit unauthorized immigrants.
How long will Trump stay the frontrunner after the nomination field thins out during the heavy primary months of March and April? No one knows. What is clear, however, is that Trump’s nationalist vision of immigration reform would face not only constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court and diplomatic challenges with Mexico, it would also face significant political challenges in Congress, with an increasingly entrenched status quo that favors greater state involvement in immigration regulation.
Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside. Follow him on Twitter @karthickr.