WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s hard-line proposals to crack down on illegal immigration this week drew fire from Democrats and pro-immigrant groups in New Mexico, but some New Mexicans and a spokeswoman for the state’s lone Republican in Congress credited the New York businessman for opening a dialogue with Mexico’s president and trying to solve the problem.
Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, traveled to Mexico on Wednesday to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto. After the meeting, Trump flew to Phoenix and delivered a nationally televised speech that filled in details of his immigration platform.
Trump vowed to build a “great wall” along the southern border, hire an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and enact a “zero-tolerance” policy for criminals living in the U.S. illegally. The Republican presidential candidate also vowed to deport millions of immigrants and subject foreigners who apply for citizenship to rigorous ideological scrutiny before granting them legal status.
Trump has made a border wall the drumbeat of his campaign, and he doubled down on that idea during his speech in Arizona.
“We will build a great wall along the southern border,” he said to cheers. “And Mexico will pay for the wall – 100 percent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.”
Trump told reporters Wednesday that he and Peña Nieto discussed the idea of building a wall during their meeting in Mexico, but not how it would be paid for. On Twitter, Peña Nieto disputed Trump’s version of the exchange.
“At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto tweeted.
But after their meeting in Mexico City, Peña Nieto stood alongside Trump and said the two held a constructive exchange of views even though “we might not agree on everything.” Trump in turn praised the Mexican president, who has also invited Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to Mexico.
During his speech in Phoenix on Wednesday, Trump proposed creating a “deportation task force,” enlisting state and local law enforcement in efforts to round up criminal undocumented immigrants, and said he would block funding for “sanctuary cities” that try to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. He said he would triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officers.
Trump was accompanied in Arizona by family members of people killed by immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, and he denounced current American deportation policies. He also blasted Clinton’s proposal to make undocumented immigrants eligible for Obamacare and predicted she would extend welfare and other benefits to them.
Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said Trump’s speech did little to bridge his divide with Hispanics who find his immigration rhetoric distasteful.
“If he was trying to get closer to a Latino or immigrant community, I think he did not achieve that goal,” Garcia said. “In general, there is too much deportation in his policy and there is no immigration reform and no serious attempt to fix the system.”
Garcia called the idea of building a wall without substantial immigration reform “a shameful political act.”
“When he talks about arresting everybody who comes across, I think he is just expanding the criminalization of immigrants and the militarization of the border,” Garcia said Wednesday. “He had an opportunity to pull himself away from that very distorted and harmful policy to something more rational, and I think we did not see this tonight.”
On border security, Trump proposed adding 5,000 more Border Patrol agents to the current force of 20,000-plus agents and said he would “put more of them on the border instead of behind a desk.” The National Border Patrol Council, which says it represents 16,500 agents, endorsed Trump in March.
Tricia Elbrock, who ranches in New Mexico’s remote Bootheel region, said she approved of that idea. Elbrock and other ranchers in the area have been calling for more agents on the border ever since one of her ranch hands was allegedly kidnapped, then let go, by drug runners in December.
“He always said he’s going to build a wall,” Elbrock said. “It won’t work unless you man it. He may get it done. He’ll need a Congress that works with him. He definitely has my vote.”
On increasing the number of Border Patrol stations, she said, “Those stations have to be put on the border or very close to it.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican who represents southern New Mexico, including the border area, has urged the Trump campaign to tone down its harsh immigration rhetoric, but Pearce has also voiced support for his candidacy. Megan Wells, a spokeswoman for Pearce, said Thursday that he was spending time with family and unavailable for comment on Trump’s speech. But she said the GOP presidential candidate’s meeting with Peña Nieto “was a clear and successful step in the right direction.”
“Immigration reform is a problem that needs all sides working together in an atmosphere of respect to secure the borders first, then develop realistic plans that do not involve amnesty,” Wells said. “Donald Trump still needs to have a respectful dialog with the Hispanic community.”
Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation roundly denounced Trump’s speech and his immigration proposals generally.
Sen. Tom Udall called Trump’s proposals “divisive and inhumane.”
“Criminalizing, rounding up and deporting millions of people and building a wall to keep ‘them’ out isn’t a rational plan for dealing with immigration or national security,” Udall said.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Trump “doubled down on his divisive immigration policies.”
“Once again in appealing to his extreme Republican base, Trump is seeking to divide our country with hatred and bigotry by demonizing immigrants and the Hispanic community,” Luján said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich said Trump’s immigration position “rejects American values and represents the worst prejudices.” Heinrich and other Democrats in New Mexico’s delegation oppose mass deportation of people who are in the country illegally, instead preferring a new policy that would allow them to earn citizenship.
“New Mexico’s remarkable spirit is rooted in our diversity, history and culture, which have always been enriched by our immigrant communities and family members,” Heinrich said.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said it was “hard to take (Trump) seriously.”
“He is focused on making political appeals to his xenophobic base of voters, while Hillary Clinton wants to work with Congress to create a sensible and fair process to address the 11 million immigrants who live in our communities without legal status,” she said.
With the election roughly two months away, Trump has been trailing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the polls.
But a new national poll by Fox News on Wednesday showed Trump chipping away at Clinton’s lead: 48 percent of respondents supported Clinton, while 42 percent favored Trump. That was a smaller gap than the 10-point spread in the same poll earlier this month. The poll also shows that a large percentage of voters remain uncertain about their choice.
Meanwhile, a University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times tracking poll released Wednesday showed Trump leading Clinton nationally 45 percent to 42 percent, while a Reuters poll showed Trump down by 2 percentage points.
Both candidates are deeply unpopular with American voters. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday found that 56 percent of registered voters view Clinton unfavorably while 63 percent said the same about Trump.