The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Asylum changes show Trump’s 2020 focus will again be on the border, presenting tough choices for Democrats

President Trump visits the border in Calexico, Calif., on April 5. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

President Trump’s decision this week to order major changes to U.S. asylum policies reflects his growing confidence that the issue of immigration could deliver him a second term by energizing his supporters and forcing Democrats into an uncomfortable spot.

Amid a surge of migrants at the southern border, Trump has repeatedly brought up the issue of immigration in private and in public, defiantly blaming the situation on Democratic leaders whom he regularly blasts as supporting “open borders.”

Trump has repeatedly told White House aides that he won in 2016 because he was the strongest candidate on immigration — and that no chant at his rallies is louder than “Build the wall!” When he is underscoring his immigration stance and contrasting it with Democrats, current and former aides and associates said, Trump thinks he has the advantage.

He raised the issue at the start of a Tuesday meeting with Democratic congressional leaders, according to a Democrat familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that the “border is a disaster” and calling on Democrats to work with him on his proposals to address the situation.

“You may disagree with it, but he strongly believes in everything he’s laid out, from the border wall to the asylum process,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and Trump fundraiser. “I think the president has an innate sense of what moved the electorate.”

Trump’s assertiveness on immigration comes amid some indications that the issue may not play well for him beyond his base.

Recognizing limits of border wall, Trump turns his focus to asylum changes amid immigration surge

His focus on the issue ahead of last year’s midterm elections, including dire warnings of migrant caravans, appeared to fall flat as Democrats retook the House by winning many previously pro-Trump areas. And a new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 42 percent of registered voters say that Trump’s handling of illegal immigration makes them more likely to oppose his reelection, compared with 34 percent who say it makes them more likely to support him.

But the survey also shows the rising potency of the issue in both parties, with 35 percent of Americans saying that the situation at the border is a crisis, up from 24 percent in January — including a jump among Democrats holding that view from 7 percent to 24 percent. Forty-five percent of Americans see it as a “serious problem but not a crisis,” the poll found.

Democratic congressional leaders and presidential candidates have offered few specific remedies to the border situation. The most detailed immigration proposal in the Democrats’ 2020 field has come from Julián Castro, who wants to end criminal penalties for migrants entering the country illegally.

Trump’s strategy poses a challenge for former vice president Joe Biden, who since entering the race this week has sought to cast himself as the best able to win over a portion of Trump’s 2016 supporters — many of whom still appreciate Trump’s tough talk on immigration — while still not alienating Democratic primary voters.

Trump tightens asylum rules, will make immigrants pay fees to seek humanitarian refuge

Biden intends to eventually place a bigger emphasis on immigration, according to his advisers, but he has not mentioned the subject in his first several campaign events.

Biden’s strategy is part of a broader trend in a Democratic field that has focused more heavily on health care, education, the environment and the economy. While the candidates have railed against the Trump administration’s now-defunct family separation policy, they have shown little desire to get in a drawn-out debate with him on the particulars of securing the border.

This dynamic has prompted concern among some Democratic activists and voters who want their candidates to talk openly not just about the Trump border policies they disagree with but what they would do differently if they are elected.

“If you do nothing, you end up recreating what happened in the 2016 presidential race, which is Trump could say anything he wanted about what Democrats thought about immigration and there wasn’t a response,” said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The sentiment was apparent at a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, the morning after the White House issued its directive ordering new measures that would, among other things, charge fees to those applying for humanitarian refuge in the United States and ban anyone who crosses the border illegally from obtaining a work permit.

Biden, who in recent days has drawn Trump into spats over the president’s 2017 comments about white supremacist rally in Charlottesville as well as their relative vigor, didn’t bring up the asylum issue.

Ann Dorr, a 67-year-old retiree who is enthusiastic about Biden and attended his Iowa event, said she was aggravated by how frequently Trump brings up immigration.

“He knows the buttons to push and he’s a master at that,” she said, adding, “Immigration is a tough, tough issue. Democrats haven’t come up with a good plan. They just oppose whatever Trump does.”

Biden, according to a senior campaign adviser, plans to offer more specifics on immigration in the future. “He’s going to say we’re a nation of immigrants, and a nation of laws — and we can do both at the same time,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

Some Democrats worry that Trump’s concrete moves — while polarizing — will triumph politically over their party’s less specific positions.

Democratic presidential candidates have largely embraced calls for comprehensive immigration reform — meaning legislation that would open a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while also dedicating resources to securing the border.

But a sweeping bipartisan bill that aimed to accomplish that failed in 2013 because of resistance from conservatives. And on the narrower question of how to solve the current border crisis, the Democrats have been relatively quiet.

Disagreements over immigration policy and pressure from a liberal base not to move toward the restrictive measures favored by Republicans have added to the challenge Democrats face in staking out detailed positions on immigration — particularly when it comes to border security.

“Democrats need to talk about that frankly. If they don’t address the legitimate demand on the part of the American people for the government to assert reasonable controls, then they’re going to open a huge pathway in the middle for Trump to try to impose his framing. And that’s the threat,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice.

Some Democrats are content with their candidates briefly articulating their opposition to Trump’s immigration policies and focusing more on other matters.

“I think it’s somewhat important. I don’t think it needs to be one of the top things they concentrate on,” said John Pekarovsky, chairman of the Luzerne County Democratic Party in Pennsylvania. The county voted for Obama in 2012 and flipped to Trump in 2016.

Viser reported from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Emily Guskin contributed to this report.