It’s often remarked that Donald Trump appeals to angry voters. That’s surely true. Yet there is a delicate discomfort about mentioning exactly the issue those voters—at least, those Republican voters—say they are most angry about: the breakdown of immigration enforcement. Trump holds a 2-1 lead over Jeb Bush among Republicans who want an immigration policy that focuses on enforcement and deportation.
Many leading politicians have expressed concern over Kathryn Steinle’s sad death. They typically represent the crime as something aberrational. Hillary Clinton, for example, said that San Francisco authorities “made a mistake” when they released Lopez-Sanchez into the community. Jeb Bush said, “The system broke down for [Steinle] and her family, and you can see why people are upset about that.”
Trump, however, had already staked out a position that defined the Steinle killing as anything but aberrational. The system didn’t break down for Steinle. It functioned as it all too often does. As Senator Ted Cruz pointed out during a July 21 Judiciary Committee hearing on crimes by illegal immigrants, in 2014 alone, immigration authorities released into American communities 193 illegal immigrants with homicide convictions, 426 people with sexual-assault convictions and 16,000 with drunk-driving convictions. Altogether, 104,000 people who by law should have been deported were instead allowed to remain on American soil. The director of the agency in charge of the removals offered as a partial excuse that immigration courts faced a backlog of 500,000 cases.
Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt that removals of immigrants convicted of criminal acts have tumbled in Obama’s second term, after a sharp rise in his first term. Federal immigration authorities removed more than 216,000 such immigrants from the United States in fiscal year 2011, more than double the removals of fiscal 2007. But in fiscal 2014, only 178,000 were removed—a 17 percent drop from the 2011 peak.
Yet even as deportations drop, the flow of new illegal immigrants appears to be accelerating. Since illegal immigration is difficult to measure, many experts use the rate of apprehensions at the border as a rough proxy for the overall flow. After a recession-induced pause in 2008-2010, apprehensions of would-be border-crossers jumped 15 percent in fiscal 2013 over fiscal 2012—and then spiked 16 percent further in fiscal 2014 over fiscal 2013.
In his June 16 announcement speech, three weeks before Steinle’s death, Trump seized the issue of crime by immigrants, especially immigrants from Mexico:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.
They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people … But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.
Republican politicians condemned and repudiated Trump. Business partners severed their relationship with him. Former Texas governor Rick Perry called Trump a “cancer” on the Republican party, and Rupert Murdoch tweeted: “Mexican immigrants, as with all immigrants, have much lower crime rates than native born. Eg El Paso safest city in U.S. Trump wrong.”