Immigration, as an issue, has not receded from the public consciousness as the midterm elections approach, even in the face of sky-high inflation, rising crime rates and a war in Europe rocking the global order.

Politically, this would seem to be a boon to Republicans, many of whom have continued to embrace Donald Trump’s tough-on-immigration policies and rhetoric as the Biden administration has been moving in the opposite direction, toward loosening restrictions and decreasing enforcement. That was particularly evident recently when the administration decided to lift an order imposed by the Trump administration restricting immigration during the pandemic. That decision, while hailed by many on the left, drew criticism from not only Republicans, but also some Democrats in the Senate up for re-election.

It was interesting, then, that the Maine Republican Party recently decided to open a multicultural center on Munjoy Hill – perhaps the liberal heart of the most Democratic city in the state – to reach out to immigrants. At first glance, this move would seem to be politically perilous: It risks spending time and resources on a futile outreach strategy that could alienate key segments of the conservative base while failing to capitalize on a major political issue. Liberal and conservative critics alike might see this as Republicans doing a political 180 from Donald Trump, with liberals viewing it as a pure PR move and Trump’s supporters seeing it as a betrayal.

While they’re not entirely meritless, neither of those views is quite accurate either – indeed, those arguments are a big part of the reason that bipartisan progress on immigration has proven elusive as of late. Engaging in outreach to recent, legal immigrants – including refugees – is not necessarily a complete abandonment of cracking down on illegal immigration. If any progress is to ever be made on immigration reform, it’s important to differentiate between the two, rather than conflating them. America has always depended on legal immigration from all over the world to make us stable and prosperous. Multiple waves of immigration have helped build our country into a superpower, and even as immigrants have always faced racial tensions and discrimination, they’ve consistently overcome that and helped improve this country.

This was a big part of the problem with Trump’s entirely negative approach to the issue, and it’s why Republicans in Maine and nationwide would be wise to shift away from that strategy. Conservatives who feel that taking this more nuanced view of this issue is a betrayal of Trump should keep in mind a couple of things. First, it wasn’t that long ago that Trump himself held this more nuanced view. After Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012, Trump actually criticized Romney for being too harsh on illegal immigration, echoing the Republican National Committee’s own conclusions from their post-election report. So, Republicans who take this position are simply agreeing more with 2012 Donald Trump than with 2016 Donald Trump.

Even if Trump’s shifting position on the issue over those four years was legitimate, rather than merely being politically convenient, there’s not much evidence that it was the right move. Even if one grants that fully embracing anti-immigration rhetoric was what allowed him to win – and that’s a thoroughly debatable point – he didn’t manage to get much done on immigration in office. What he did do was implement a series of executive orders and policy changes, some of which were overturned in court (like halting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), some of which his successor reversed, and some of which he eventually abandoned (like the child separation policy). He also had a pattern of threatening sweeping actions, like mass deportations, that never were implemented at all. While Trump was somewhat successful in curbing illegal immigration, he wasn’t able to get anything done on the issue in Congress.

It may seem superficial, but embracing legal immigration (including refugees) while simultaneously promising to crack down on illegal immigration is the wise approach. Even if it doesn’t result in sweeping bipartisan reforms overnight or in Republicans suddenly overturning Democrats’ advantage in Portland, it won’t hurt. That’s why it’s heartening to see Republican candidates like Ed Thelander in the 1st Congressional District and former Gov. Paul LePage move away from Trump’s harsh anti-immigration rhetoric: It lets voters of all stripes know that concern about illegal immigration is legitimate, and doesn’t necessarily include demonization of all immigrants. That at least sets us on the path toward a healthy debate, and that’s good for the country as a whole.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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