WASHINGTON - As he campaigns for fellow Republicans, U.S. President Donald Trump has left little doubt that he intends to make immigration a central issue in this year’s congressional midterm elections.

That strategy, however, involves a measure of political risk in the wake of the heavy criticism leveled at the administration over its policy of separating children from parents crossing the border, a policy the president reversed last week.

Tough on the border

This week, the president appeared to be road-testing some campaign themes for the November midterms. During a rally in South Carolina, Trump fired a warning shot at opposition Democrats over the immigration issue.

“The Democrats want open borders and they don’t mind crime. We want very tight, very strict borders. And by the way, you saw a 70-year low (in illegal crossings), with all the complaining I’m doing, we’ve done a very good job,” Trump told a rally in West Columbia, South Carolina, for Republican Governor Henry McMaster. The governor prevailed in a Republican primary Tuesday.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association convention in New Orleans, June 18, 2018.

A rare Trump retreat

Just last week, Trump rolled back a policy that separated migrant children from their parents, after a huge outcry that crossed party lines.  Administration officials maintained they intend to stay tough on the border.

“We are going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “We are going to do everything in our power, however, to avoid separating families.”

Intense opposition

The Trump approach continues to draw protests, including one where demonstrators tried to block a bus full of migrants at a processing center in McAllen, Texas.

“People have to stand up. We can no longer accept this racism as if it is OK. This is not something that is OK in America today,” said Gabriel Rosales of the League of United Latin American Citizens. He and others briefly prevented the bus from moving.

Seventeen states have joined a lawsuit that seeks to force the Trump administration to reunite migrant families.  

“This is not about Democrats and Republicans. This is not about liberals and conservatives,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, one of the states involved. “This is the basic question about how you treat children. It is a question of humanity. It is a question of values. It is a question of decency.”

New York Gun Laws
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference in New York, June 5, 2018.

A divided Congress

Congress has struggled to address the issue, in part because of a sharp divide between moderates who want to help the so called “dreamers,” and conservatives who regard any path to citizenship for illegal entrants as amnesty.

It is a balance Republicans will wrestle with all the way to the November midterms, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“We should not have to be in a situation where we are saying, separate families or secure the border. We should be able to keep families together and secure the border and enforce our laws.”

Congress Immigration
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan meets with reporters before a House showdown on immigration, at the Capitol in Washington, June 21, 2018.

Energizing the base

Some analysts see Trump’s quick pivot from backing down on family separations to focusing once again on border security aimed at firing up his political base for the midterms.

“They are really not interested in the views of Democrats or independents or others in the American electorate,” said University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato, via Skype. “They are only concerned about their base, and the base that they have is strongly anti-immigration.”

Recent polls show Trump remains overwhelmingly popular among Republican voters, something that should help Republicans as they fight to keep their congressional majorities in November.

Political risks

But Gallup pollster Frank Newport said that laser focus on Trump’s base also limits his ability to broaden support some Independents and even Democrats.

“Democrats are locked in to not approving of Trump. Republicans, regardless of what he does, are pretty much locked into approving. So if those two groups kind of lock in on either end, it is very hard for a president like Trump's ratings to get much, much higher.”

Trump's Gallup approval rating took a hit this week in the wake of the immigration focus. Trump's rating went down from 45 percent the week before to 41 percent.

A new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that 74 percent of those surveyed support the president’s decision to reverse the family separation policy, while 15 percent opposed it.

Trump has often urged his supporters to defy history and their next opportunity will come in the midterms where opposition Democrats are favored to pick up seats in the House of Representatives. Democrats need to gain 23 House seats to reclaim the majority. The president’s party typically loses congressional seats in the midterm elections.

About one-third of the 100 U.S. Senate seats are also up for election this year, but many of those races involve incumbent Republicans in states that voted for Trump. Republicans are hoping the geography of the races will give them a chance to pick up a seat or two and expand their narrow 51-49 seat edge in the Senate.