Trump escalates anti-migrant rhetoric ahead of Biden match-up

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Former President Trump is turning to familiar terrain as he gears up for the general election campaign against President Biden, escalating his attacks on migrants coming into the country and warning of calamitous consequences at the border if Biden is reelected.

Trump has for years used incendiary rhetoric about immigrants to fire up his base, but in recent weeks he has turned up the intensity even more, warning about “migrant crime” and making dubious claims about migrants speaking languages “nobody has ever heard of.”

Several recent polls have shown immigration at or near the top of the list of concerns for voters as they weigh their choices in November. Trump has been eager to make migration central to the general election debate, visiting the U.S.-Mexico border on the same day as Biden late last month. 

“The more people learn about this issue, the more they get pissed off,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

“Regardless of the verbiage being used, it drives home the point that Biden is not putting Americans first,” he added.

Trump has made inflammatory statements about immigration dating back to his 2016 campaign launch, when he ran on the idea of building a wall along the southern border and suggested Mexico was sending rapists and criminals across the border into the U.S. He has not shied away from that type of rhetoric in the years since, and he once again is leaning into provocative language.

Trump drew comparisons to Nazi leaders when he said in December that immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of the country.

Almost every Trump speech now features a riff about “migrant crime,” a category Trump tells supporters he has branded himself to refer to violence by those who came into the country illegally.

He has repeatedly referenced a viral incident from early February, in which migrants were recorded brawling with police officers in Times Square. And the death last month of Georgia college student Laken Riley, who authorities say was killed by a Venezuelan man who entered the country illegally in 2022, has become another flashpoint in the debate over border security.

During a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump tested out what has become a common talking point: That migrants are speaking unknown languages.

“We have languages coming into our country. We don’t have one instructor in our entire nation that can speak that language,” Trump told the crowd of supporters. “These are languages — it’s the craziest thing — they have languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of. It’s a very horrible thing.”

When asked about the comments, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung told NBC News that the former president’s point was “there are migrants invading from countries that we know nothing about.”

Trump routinely claims there are “millions” of migrants coming into the U.S. from jails, prisons and mental institutions. During a conversation with Fox News host Sean Hannity last week, the two men agreed the surge in migration could lead to “a big attack at some point.”

At a North Carolina rally ahead of Super Tuesday, Trump said Biden’s border policies amounted to “a conspiracy to overthrow the United States of America.”

During a conversation with Right Side Broadcasting before Tuesday’s primaries, Trump went so far as to claim, without evidence, that the surge in migration has overrun New York City to the point that “there’s no more Little Leagues. There’s no more sports. There’s no more life in New York and so many of these cities.”

A website for Little League baseball in New York City indicates registration for the spring is underway.

A New York City Education Department spokesperson told ChalkBeat that Trump’s assertions that students in the city have been displaced by migrants were also false.

The Biden campaign has been sharply critical of Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals on immigration, which include mass deportations led by local police. A Biden campaign spokesperson called Trump’s proposals “racist, un-American and ineffective. It’s cheap politics as usual, at a time when the American people demand action from their elected officials.”

Polling has shown immigration is top of mind for many Americans as focus shifts from the primary process to the likely general election match-up between Trump and Biden. The Associated Press reported in January there were more than 3 million cases pending in immigration courts, and there were record-setting levels of apprehensions at the southern border in late 2023.

A Gallup survey released in late February found 28 percent of Americans named immigration as the country’s top problem, an 8-point jump from January.

A Jan. 31 Bloomberg/Morning Consult survey of voters in seven swing states found 61 percent said Biden was at least somewhat responsible for the surge of migration at the southern border, and 52 percent of respondents said they trusted Trump over Biden on immigration.

Earlier this week, former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki and fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow laughed at the idea that immigration was the top issue for Virginia voters on Super Tuesday. The exchange went viral, with Trump aides and other Republicans citing it as evidence Democrats are out of touch with voters who believe immigration affects their safety and economic status.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser for the Trump campaign, called Psaki’s comments “disgusting” and emblematic of a disconnect among Democrats on the issue.

“This is why Democrats are going to lose in the general election,” Miller said on Fox News. “I would like to see those panelists go look the parents of Laken Riley in the eye and say that same thing. Say that to them. Say that to the people who have been hurt by this Joe Biden crisis that he’s created of his own doing at the southern border.”

Biden and the White House have in recent weeks sought to go on offense on the issue of border security, specifically attempting to turn Trump’s opposition to a bipartisan immigration bill into a liability for the likely GOP nominee.

Trump urged Republicans to oppose the bill, which was crafted by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). It would have given the federal government temporary authority to expel migrants when the average number of daily crossings exceeded a set threshold, ended “catch and release” and raised standards for asylum screenings. Trump argued passing the bill would have reflected poorly on the GOP politically.

Biden has vowed to remind voters it is Trump’s fault the border “is not secure.” The president made Trump’s opposition to the border bill a major part of his State of the Union address Thursday, seeking to draw a clear contrast with his predecessor.

“Here’s what I will not do: I will not demonize immigrants saying they ‘poison the blood of our country,’ as he said in his own words,” Biden continued. “I will not separate families. I will not ban people from America because of their faith.”

“We have a simple choice: We can fight about the border, or we can fix it,” he added. “I’m ready to fix it.”

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