On a simple policy level, this is a defeat for Trump: His key issue in the 2016 Republican primary, and arguably the general election as well, was immigration restriction. But it’s also a political trap. If Trump chooses to battle with Democrats over DACA this close to the election, he could please parts of his base while ultimately alienating key voters who haven’t yet turned on him completely.
Ending DACA was never a great issue for Trump. Sure, some Trumpian loyalists backed the president on it: Thirty-six percent of Republicans said they opposed “granting permanent legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children” in a 2018 Pew Research Center poll. But in that same survey, 54 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of the overall public favored that idea. Moreover, according to a 2020 Pew survey, 54 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Hispanic adults favor Congress “passing a law granting permanent legal status to immigrants who came to U.S. illegally when they were children” and 11 percent oppose it.
If Trump does take a hit with Hispanic voters, it really could damage his reelection bid. Contrary to popular belief, Trump does have a genuine Hispanic base: 28 percent voted for him in the 2016 election, and he has kept many of those voters in the fold throughout his first term. Maybe more importantly, Joe Biden has been posting underwhelming numbers with Hispanic voters since the start of the Democratic primary season. If Trump telegraphs animus toward Hispanic and Latino voters by doubling down on DACA, he could close off a potential source of new votes and help Biden make inroads with voters he has previously struggled to win.
The smart move for Trump is to temporarily take a loss on DACA and move on. Trump can still loudly proclaim his opposition to immigration in general and please his most devoted fans without resurrecting an issue where roughly three-quarters of Americans disagree with him.
It’s unclear whether he will make that choice — or whether he’s capable of making it. Team Trump might sensibly decide to leave this decision alone, or the president might get distracted by the inevitable deluge of news that will hit next week.
But Trump has made a habit of intentionally waging unpopular, base-pleasing policy wars. He shut the government down over border wall funding; he pushed unpopular Affordable Care Act replacements; he championed Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination; he endorsed hugely controversial Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race — the list goes on. Trying to revive a fight over DACA would be extremely in character for Trump.
And that’s why Team Trump should beware of DACA. Most DACA-supporting Republicans will prioritize other issues over immigration, follow their partisan loyalties and support Trump despite his stance on this issue. But he can’t afford to shed the few who could leave over this. The president has already lost ground because of his failures to competently combat the coronavirus and empathetically engage with the antiracism protests of the past few weeks, and Biden leads him by nearly nine points in national polls. Trump needs to start thinking strategically and showing a little more empathy — or this might be his last term in the White House.